To help detect potentially fatal seizures before they happen, Vicki Martin turned to a trusted service dog trainer for her epileptic daughter.
Born with autism, Julia Martin developed epilepsy at age 12. Autism is one of the fastest-growing development disorders in the U.S., according to Autism Speaks. Autism is a “spectrum” condition, which means it affects people in very different ways. There is currently no cure for autism, but there are multiple ways to address symptoms.
Her seizures weren’t serious at first, but became generalized in the past 2 years, according to her mother.
“There’s a real risk of falling and dropping and hurting herself, and she doesn’t know when they’re coming,” says Vicki.
In addition to her seizures, Julia, now 21, suffers from stims, or self-stimulatory behaviors that can be harmful to her health. “Stims” refers to repetitive body movements or the repetitive movement of objects.
In an effort to improve their daughter’s quality of life, the Martins sought help from experienced service dog trainer Jillian Skalky. Using a service dog can help detect the onset of a seizure and reduce stimming. Specializing in diabetes, seizure and gluten-alert service dogs, Skalky scent-trains dogs to be able to smell a seizure before it hits.
Skalky is the owner of Creating New Tails, a professional service dog training company located in Hollywood, Florida. Skalky herself has battled the symptoms of Crohn’s disease since she was 12 years old. As her disease progressed, it became difficult for her to be independent.
“Each surgery and each ER visit made my encouragement to live the life I wanted seem meaningless,” Skalky says.
After coming back from the brink of death, she adopted a puppy whom she named Rosie. Together with Rosie, Skalky found a new purpose—helping people with health issues live independent lives through trained service dogs.
Becoming a Service Dog
Service dogs have helped millions of people with disabilities regain some of their independence. Service dog Venus has been training with Skalky for just 2 months. The ADA requires that service dogs “must be trained to take a specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability,” so Venus must learn to detect Julia’s seizures before she can graduate. To train Venus to detect seizures, Skalky took samples of Julia’s sweat.
The sweat is frozen, then used throughout training to familiarize Venus with the scent. Venus is trained to bark and paw when the scent is introduced. Scent-training takes about 5 months, according to Skalky, who starts training dogs when they reach 2 years old.
“It takes a year to a year and a half for a service dog to graduate from the program,” Skalky says.
Owners receive home visits for up to a year after the dogs begin service to ensure they are fully trained.
In addition to learning to detect Julia’s seizures, Venus is being trained to help prevent Julia from harmful stimming.
“Julia slaps her mouth and picks at her skin,” Skulky says.
Venus will learn deep-pressure therapy, which includes laying on Julia’s sternum to lower her blood pressure and keep her calm. Venus will learn to push Julia’s hand away with her nose to stop the stims when they occur.
To train Venus to stop stims, Skalky uses positive reinforcement training. She places tempting dog treats in her palms as she acts out the stim. Venus receives the treat when she uses her nose to push the hands away. Eventually, treats will be phased out of training, and Venus will be ready to join her fellow service dogs in the field.
Creating a New Tale
Skalky’s business, Creating New Tails, has a reputation for successfully training dogs for autism and epileptic seizures.
“Venus’ sibling is currently paired with a child with autism,” Skalky says. “The child runs away as a part of the condition, so the service dog plays a vital part in the safety of the child—learning his scent, and locating him when he runs.”
Plans are customized to the owner’s needs.
“Each dog is special to its owner,” says Skalky.
With help from Venus, Julia has an opportunity to enjoy a different life than the one the Martins had previously imagined. Service dogs have proven to be an effective way to address the symptoms of autism and epilepsy, but they aren’t covered by insurance. The cost of obtaining a highly trained service dog like Venus is about $13,000. The Martins have raised a little over half of what they need for Venus in the one month since the Go Fund Me account was created. Venus has 4-6 months left of her service dog training before she’ll be ready to go home with Julia.