Seizure dog giving Florence family a chance at normality

All Melissa and Stuart Funk wanted was a chance for son Dakota to lead a normal life.

That wish came true four years ago for the Florence family-which includes not only Dakota, 9, but siblings Galen, 12, and Angel-Lynn, 11, who all suffer regular seizures-in the form of a seizure response/alert dog named Chance.

The 6-year-old yellow labrador truly has become not only a young boy’s best friend but an entire family’s, Melissa said.

“He’s been a godsend,” she said.

Chance came to the family through the Great Plains Assistance Dogs Foundation in Jud, N.D.

Professionally trained assistance dogs have long helped individuals with impairments in sight, hearing or mobility, but seizure-alert dogs have only become popular within the last decade.

The dogs are trained to respond to sensing the onset of a seizure with a vocal (barking) or physical-contact alert or by activating an emergency medical device.

Great Plains is one of several non-profit foundations in the United States that trains and places dogs like Chance with individuals and the families of individuals who suffer from severe seizures.

Melissa she said it was obvious from the start that Chance was meant for Dakota and his family.

When the family took a two-week trip in October 2001 to the foundation to choose their dog and be trained to handle him, the process included Dakota being put in a large room where seizure-alert dogs were brought in one-by-one for him to play with.

“We would just leave him alone and see how they would interact,” Melissa said.

At just the time Chance was brought in to meet Dakota, the 5-year-old had managed to get himself in a little predicament while his mother wasn’t looking.

“All of the sudden that mother instinct kicked in, and I turned,” Melissa said. “(Dakota) was climbing up on this stepstool, and he didn’t have a real good sense of balance. Chance went over and planted himself at the foot of the stepstool while Dakota was up there, until I got over there.

“And I said, ‘That’s Dakota’s dog,'” she said. “Chance pretty much picked Dakota instead of the other way around.”

Actually placing a dog with a kindergartner and his family was an uncharacteristic move for Great Plains, she said.

“They are placing dogs with children as young as Dakota was, but they weren’t at that time,” Melissa said. “They didn’t know if it would be too overwhelming (for the dog).

“But they said, we’ll take a chance placing a dog and seeing how he’ll do with a family with three children who have seizures.”

There’s no doubt in their mother’s mind that not just her children but Chance himself have all flourished with the arrangement.

“There’s been too many stories to be able to tell you all of the good things he’s done,” Melissa said.

Since birth, each of her three youngest children have experienced regular seizures-of which Dakota’s have always been the most frequent and severe-due to chemical imbalances in their brains.

Melissa’s older children-Kiera, 20, and Travis, 19-have never suffered from seizures.

Each of the younger three has also been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Restless Leg Syndrome and impaired glucose tolerance, which will eventually become diabetes.

The severity of their seizures can range from complex partial to grand mal seizures, in which breathing can stop altogether.

But since Chance has been there to alert to all three kids’ seizures, the situation has improved drastically, Melissa said.

“We’ve gone from usually two ambulance trips a month to two ambulance trips for the kids for seizures since we’ve gotten him,” she said.

And that’s not just because Chance alerts Melissa or Stuart in time for them to give the kids extra medication. The kids have actually suffered fewer seizure onsets altogether because of the dog’s presence in their lives.

“Part of it is that we know (the seizures are) coming,” she said. “Part of it is that there’s a psychological benefit to the children knowing the dog’s going to let us know. There’s no proven facts, but they believe that that helps lessen (seizure onsets).”

And while Dakota used to have to sleep in his parents’ bed because about 75 percent of his seizures occur at night, he now has his own bed, with Chance rather than his parents on duty.

“Mom likes it,” Melissa said of the sleeping arrangement. “Chance pretty much knows the (seizures) he needs to come and get me for. And I pretty much know he’ll start barking if it’s one I need to go in and attend to.”

In addition to normal commands like “sit,” “stay” and “come,” Chance is trained to “find” anyone in the family, to “alert” Melissa or Stuart of any problems and then to lead them to it.

But the word “alert” is only used in Chance’s training in place of him actually sensing a seizure onset in real life.

Alert dogs like Chance can sense the onset of a seizure up to 48 hours before it will hit.

“The one bad thing is that sometimes when they alert 48 hours ahead of time, I can’t really give them medication-it wouldn’t do much good,” Melissa said. “But he knows how close (the seizures) are, and I have yet to figure that out.”

“When it gets to the point that it’s close, he will not quit alerting until I go and get the medicine.”

Not only that, but Chance also has a different bark for each of the kids, Melissa said.

“It’s sort of like learning the baby’s cries-you can tell the difference,” she said. “And if I don’t catch it, he’ll lead me to whichever child.”

Chance also can sense other illness or danger, she added.

“Whoever’s sick, that’s who he goes and lies with,” she said, then added with a smile, “The worst is he’ll alert me that I have a migraine. I’m like, ‘Chance, I know I have a headache. Don’t bark.'”

His keen senses also prevented the spread of a kitchen fire a couple of years ago, Melissa said.

“Chance alerted me even before the smoke alarm went off,” she said.

Despite strict training, Chance is still a normal dog in many ways.

“He goes through Frisbees pretty fast,” Melissa said with a laugh.

And he enjoys joining the family in a variety of outdoor family activities, from fishing to swimming to riding in the boat with them when they go waterskiing.

“The first time we took him on the boat with us skiing, Dakota was trying to ski,” Melissa said. “When he went down, Chance went in to get him.

“Now, when any of the kids are skiing (and go down), Chance will go and get them,” she added. “He’ll have them hold onto his collar and he’ll bring them back in.”

Around the house, Chance sticks close to Dakota, who admitted that sometimes he wants a little separation from his best friend.

“If I want to be away from him, I can say, ‘Chance, be free,'” Dakota said. “Then he can just do whatever he wants around the house.

“Sometimes I don’t even say ‘come’ and he just follows me,” he added. “He likes to hang out.”

Chance accompanies the family on some trips to restaurants, stores and other public places.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, an assistance dog has legal access rights into all U.S. public accommodations, with a penalty of large fines if access is denied.

“I’ve only had problems once with someone not wanting us to have him (there), and that was at a motel,” Melissa said. “I just ended up leaving because I was getting so upset.”

Chance wears a backpack on such outings to identify him as a working assistance dog.

“When they put that backpack on him, he’s working,” she said. “Around here he doesn’t have to wear his pack-everybody knows that he’s a seizure-alert dog.”

Sometimes the family leaves Chance at home to give him a break from what could otherwise be a full-time job with no off hours.

“That’s one of the reasons that we don’t always take him,” Melissa said. “He’s a normal dog most of the time, but he’s never off duty, even when he’s not commanding and alerting.

“He gets overwhelmed.”

Dakota has only taken Chance to school with him a few times over the years, Melissa said.

“I want Dakota to be in full command of Chance before he takes him to school,” she said. “He does really good with him, but I’m not comfortable with it yet.

“It’s not to the point that Dakota is in control enough-you have to prove to Chance that you’re the Alpha male,” she added. “Chance sees himself as Dakota’s brother and protector.”

At this point, Melissa is Chance’s primary trainer, working with him on commands about 20 minutes a day. Dakota trains with him about once a week.

“I’ve been certified to handle him by myself,” she said.

Dakota is only certified to do so if one of his parents is with him.

The family is planning a trip to Great Plains to have the children all test to be certified handlers as well as to finally make Chance “their” dog, now that they’ve had him for more than three years.

“We need to go back up and have another training session,” Melissa said. “And then Chance will officially become our dog.”

While housing will be provided for them, Melissa said the family’s income level because of Stuart’s volunteer work with county emergency medical services leaves them in need of financial help for travel expenses.

“We’re going to have to do some kind of fund-raising to be able to go up there,” she said.

“But God will be there-he will provide a way for us.”

Whether Dakota and his siblings will continue to need a seizure-alert dog like Chance remains to be seen, Melissa said.

“I don’t know how much Dakota will regress with not having a dog,” she said. “I would probably always feel better with Dakota having a dog.”

For now, Chance is helping Dakota lead a normal life both at home and at school.

“He’s missed a couple of half days, but right now he has perfect attendance,” Melissa said. “He’s started to gain a lot of self-confidence.

“He is a normal third-grader.”

So as much as it’s in her power, Melissa said she’ll keep Chance around as long as possible to help her protect her children.

“He’s done wonders for all three of them, and not just with the seizures,” she said. “But for that alone, he’s worth his weight in gold.”

For more information or to contribute to the Funks’ upcoming trip to Great Plains Assistance Dogs Foundation in Jud, N.D., call Melissa Funk at 620-878-4427.

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