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Limestone woman gets helping paw from new companion

Nathan Baker • Nov 26, 2016 at 6:36 PM

Two weeks after completing intensive training at Canine Partners for Life’s facilities in Pennsylvania, service dog Davy lay curled at Heather Torbett’s feet in the living room of her Limestone home.

When wearing his service dog harness, Davy knows he’s on the job, and calmly rests next to Torbett in case she needs to grab onto the attached handle for some help walking or standing, or to perform some of the simple tasks he knows. When the harness comes off, Davy’s tail starts to wag, and he can take a break to grab his favorite plush monkey toy, but he’s still never very far from his companion.

Aside from lending a hand when needed, Davy senses when Torbett will be hit with a period of cataplexy, a sudden but temporary loss of muscle control, and warns her before it happens.

“He’s certainly a big help to have around,” Torbett said. “If I’m especially tired on a certain day, he can do things like help get things out of the dryer or get something to drink if I need it.”

Her cataplexy is a symptom of narcolepsy, a chronic neurological disorder caused by her brain’s inability to regulate a stable sleep-wake cycle. In addition to the spells of paralysis, Torbett said she’s often excessively sleepy and hears auditory hallucinations, usually loud music, when she’s trying to fall asleep.

She started having symptoms: fatigue and dizziness, years ago, but doctors first diagnosed her as a borderline diabetic, then decided she may be having non-epileptic seizures. After a partial hysterectomy to help regulate her hormone levels, hoping the cause of the seizures lay in an imbalance there, she didn’t have any problems for six years.

“Then one day I went out like a light, and my husband couldn’t find a pulse or any breath,” Torbett said.

She was conscious and aware as her husband tried to revive her, then rushed to call emergency services, but she couldn’t move, speak or signal to him in any way she was alive.

Paramedics found her weak vital signs, and she eventually fully recovered her ability to move, but it was evident she wasn’t having seizures.

“The paramedic said you don’t have any recollection of the time when you’ve had a seizure, but I could remember everything,” she said. “That’s when I started trying to find out myself what was wrong, because it was clear the doctors had no clue.”

After some long nights Googling, Torbett ended up at the University of Tennessee Sleep Disorders Center and was diagnosed with narcolepsy in June 2015. Doctors told her there was no known cure for her condition, but said a service dog may help her with everyday tasks.

She found a few service dog organizations, but settled on Canine Partners for Life because it was a nonprofit organization that contracts with correctional facilities to employ inmates to train their dogs, and because it allows service animal recipients to have other pets in the house. With a poodle and her daughter’s dachshund already part of the family, Torbett didn’t want to have to give up any pets.

Tonya Guy, Associate Director of Marketing and Communications for Canine Partners for Life, said the nonprofit trains dogs to assist with a variety of conditions, from physical disabilities to seizures.

Davy started his training with basic commands in a prison puppy program at Cambridge Springs, a minimum-security women's prison in Pennsylvania. Canine Partners contracts with 10 different facilities where its dogs are taught basic obedience commands and receive some socialization opportunities.

When the animals are about 15 months old, they are brought to the organization’s kennels in Cochranville, Pennsylvania, to learn more advanced skills.

During their training there, one of the organization’s staff members who suffers seizures works with the young dogs to determine which will sense and alert to certain conditions.

“He takes the dogs and watches how they react around him,” Guy said. “Some dogs alert to seizures and some don’t. It’s an innate ability some dogs have.”

Trainers positively reinforce the behavior in the dogs showing the alert ability, but there was no guarantee a dog would be able to sense Torbett’s oncoming cataplexy.

When she arrived at the organization’s training facility for a three-week session with Davy, it was clear he would be able to help.

“On the first day, he came over and laid down his hand on me, and one of the trainers said, ‘He’s alerting!’” Torbett said. “A little after that I had a spell.”

When Davy senses an oncoming spell, he will lock eyes with Torbett. If she’s standing or moving, he will stand in front of her to stop her.

Torbett said getting accustomed to a dog telling her what to do was difficult for her.

“At first, if we were out walking around somewhere, and he started alerting, I would try to pull him along, try to make him keep moving,” she said. “He just gets in front of me and stops. If I try to keep going, he will try to wrap a leg around me to get me to stop.”

As part of the training in Pennsylvania, Torbett and Davy went out into public with other service dogs in training to get used to different sights, sounds and smells while working.

On a few of the field trips, the group went to nearby Philadelphia, where Torbett said the crowds made her nervous.

“I think most of the time, the dogs were calmer than we were,” she said. “It was just an overload for me, and, especially if I’m in a crowd with a lot of sensory stimulation, stress can sometimes trigger the cataplexy.”

To deal with the stress, Canine Partners for Life trainers told her to focus on Davy. Torbett said it helps in those situations to look at and talk to the dog, keeping her calm.

Torbett said at first, she was worried about bringing the Labrador into her house, because of dog allergies and a general aversion to fur blanketing the furniture and carpet.

Canine Partners staff gave her tips for lessening the effects of her allergies, which have worked, but the fur is always present. Torbett said she vacuums every other day to keep it at bay.

She said Davy’s wide service dog pack also required some furniture be rearranged to allow him enough space to pass by.

“I told my husband he’d just have to hit his head on the chandelier in the dining room, because we had to scoot to table over,” she said. “Other than that, it’s been great having him around.”

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