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Cha Cha: Seizure-detection dog helps girl with epilepsy

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By The Staff

By JENNIFER RAYMOND

rcraymond@bellsouth.net

Six-year-old Gracey Estes has a special friend who is always by her side.

Her springer spaniel Cha Cha even goes to Kingston Elemenary School with her.

The canine is more than just a companion; he also is a seizure-alert dog.

Gracey was diagnosed with epilepsy when she was 3; she also suffers from cerebral palsy.

Early last year, her family received help in the form of an 18-month-old dog.

Gracey’s mom, Lori Estes, was researching seizure disorders and mobility service dogs online when seizure-alert dogs popped up on the screen.

“People usually don’t realize that they have mobility and seizure-alert dogs,” Estes said.

No one is clear how some dogs have this uncanny ability to detect pending seizures.

Some have attributed it to their heightened sense of smell, believing they sense a chemical change in the body. Another theory is they detect small changes in human behavior.

“He’s a bird dog, so that’s why he’s so good with his nose,” Estes said.

She found organizations who provided seizure-alert dogs, but most only placed them with people 12 years and older.

“There’s only one or two agencies that would train for a young child,” Lori said.

She went with Pawsibilities Unleashed Pet Therapy, one of the organizations that provides service dogs for children.

PUPT is a therapy pet and service dog nonprofit organization in Kentucky. They rescue dogs that have the potential to become therapy pets, service dogs or just companions.

“People take for granted the health of their child,” Estes said. “With a child like this, you will do anything you can if it can help.”

“Her seizures vary, and she was having them all through the night,” she said. “One of our main concerns was that we didn’t even know she was having one, because sometimes it’s so small.”

Estes was impressed with Liz Norris, the master instructor with PUPT. She picks service dogs based on their temperament.

“She’s like the dog whisperer,” Estes said.

Norris found the perfect match for the Estes, then the family spent a week in Kentucky to meet Cha Cha and go through training.

Estes said the handsome dog approached everyone and then immediately sat down beside Gracey.

“Liz told us that was a good sign, that he knows she is the one that needs him,” she said. “Essentially, he picked her.”

The weeklong session helped with training, but went further.

“This helps you bond to the dog,” Estes said.

Once the week was over, it was time to take Cha Cha home, back to Kingston.

Although she was nervous, Estes said Cha Cha adapted right away.

During their first two nights with Cha Cha, he tried to tell them that something was wrong with Gracey.

“He kept licking her hands over and over,” Estes said.

That night, Gracey had a high fever and the next night she got strep and was taken to the emergency room.

Estes knew they had a special dog.

“I wish we could have had him from birth,” she said.

A big benefit of Cha Cha is that Gracey is now able to be have her own room at home.

“To get her in her own room and be comfortable, it’s worth every penny,” Estessaid.

Cha Cha sleeps at the foot of Gracey’s bed and watch her during the night. He barks when he detects a seizure.

During the day or at school, his signals are usually more subtle.

“You have to pay attention, but it’s obvious once you get a hold of it,” Estes said.

Cha Cha will lick Gracey’s hands, or stare intently at Estes or at Gracey’s attendant of three years, Charlotte Wilson. Other times he will circle around her wheelchair.

While in kindergarten, Gracey has both Wilson and Cha Cha by her side.

Although one would think that a dog would be a disruption in a room full of kindergartners, Cha Cha remains calm.

“He just stays right there with Gracey,” said Beth Oran, her teacher.

Kingston Elementary principal Sheila Sitzlar said parents of kindergartners were told about Cha Cha and Gracey’s situation in the spring. Children with dog allergies were not put in the class with Cha Cha.

“He has acclimated to the kids well, and they’ve acclimated to him well,” Oran said. “They think he’s part of our class.”

Cha Cha sometimes gets his tail stepped on or is climbed on, but he remains in work mode.

“He usually just looks up at me as if to say, ‘Did you see that?’” Oran said.

So far this year, Gracey has only had one seizure while at school.

Estes said it was a staring seizure and was so subtle that no one noticed at first.

Cha Cha tried to alert Wilson by staring her down and being willfully disobedient by refusing to sit.

“He always listens to Charlotte,” Estes said. “When he’s at school, he knows she’s the boss.”

Wilson then realized that Gracey was having a seizure.

Although this was an instance of alerting during a seizure, Cha Cha has also warned them of a seizure before it struck.

Once Estes is aware of an oncoming seizure, she is either able to medicate her to ease it or get Gracey to a safe area so she does not hurt herself.

“He stays out of the way and waits to make sure she is doing OK,” Estes said. “She’s his kid, his baby.”

Afterwards, Cha Cha then tries to comfort Gracey by licking her hands.

“We call them kisses,” Estes said.

Although a major benefit of Cha Cha is detecting seizures, he is also able to help with her physical therapy and carries medicine, treats and other necessities in a backpack while he is working.

Not only does he help with the needs of Gracey, but he is also a sense of comfort for her and her family.

“People just don’t understand the amount of comfort he gives,” Estes said. “He’s the Wonder Dog.”