Spike is a 51-pound, 7½-year-old, fun-loving, task-oriented best friend. But there’s another side to this resourceful Bearded Collie’s multifaceted personality. He’s been a seizure-alert dog for his owner, Susan Zuckerman, of Boca Raton, Fla., since he was 6 years old, when she experienced her first epilepsy incident.
“It seems like only yesterday,” says her husband, Ed Zuckerman, “but it occurred on Jan. 22, 2016. Spike was with Susan in her office. Suddenly, he raced over to me and grabbed my pants leg, then began pulling me toward her. He had never done anything like this before, so I quickly followed him. I found Susan on the floor, moving around underneath the door that was torn off its tracks when she fell and lost consciousness. We didn’t realize that she had just had her first seizure. It lasted 20 minutes, but it seemed like an eternity.”
Since then, Susan has experienced 13 seizures (including 4 this year), and Spike has alerted on 6 of them. His alert notice ranges from 10 seconds to two hours and is chiefly reflected by restlessness, circling, and pacing.
“There were other times where he might have tried to help, and I might not have noticed him because things were so hectic,” adds Ed. “Spike has told us what was going to happen in many ways. On one occasion, he pinned Susan in her chair at the dining-room table to tell her a seizure was forthcoming — two hours beforehand.”
Since there have been no false alerts, the couple has complete confidence in Spike’s ability to alert them to oncoming seizures.
The typical scenario goes like this: When Susan suffers a seizure, Ed immediately calls 911 and positions his wife on her side. When emergency personnel arrive, one responder asks questions about the incident; another checks Susan’s vitals; the third brings a stretcher and readies her for a trip to the hospital, where she stays for two-to-five days. The attacks are enormously tiring and require considerable rest to recover from.
Epilepsy has evolved into a lifetime game-changer for the couple, since it has left Susan unable to drive a car, go to the pool, or do much alone. A canine version of an early-warning radar system, Spike has enabled the couple to prepare for and somewhat control situations which would be unpredictable to them alone.
“One time we arrived home,” recalls Ed, “and I went for a walk with Spike. We did not get 20 feet away from the house when he spun and dragged me back into the house to catch Susan before she hit the ground.”
A few weeks ago, Spike and Ed were in a Target store shopping, while Crush (their other Beardie) and Susan attended a class nearby. “Spike gave me a signature ‘whoop’ and off we ran toward the front of the store. He turned left, not toward Susan, ran and parked himself in Aisle 14, but no one was down there. That is when we realized that a woman was on the ground in Aisle 13. When the EMTs arrived, I shared information with them that Spike suspected a seizure, so they could take that information accordingly.”
The Zuckermans didn’t expect to hear back from anyone involved, but the following Sunday, a store security guard told Ed that his seizure hunch stemming from Spike’s alert was correct.
A Silver Lining
“Spike has changed our lives in so many positive ways,” says Susan. “I’ve had dogs all of my life, but none as diverse as him. He’s a happy boy and never more thrilled than when he’s flying through the air after a frisbee. He’s a silver lining in a dark cloud.”
When he’s not alerting those in need, the “other” Spike, a Masters-level agility competitor, is clearing hurdles, climbing ladders, and running through tunnels in American Kennel Club rings. “He has an extraordinary ability to change motion while airborne. In fact, he is far better on the course than either of us handlers,” Ed emphasizes. Spike, adds Susan, is fast, a quick learner, and very motivated to succeed — all key traits for any agility competitor.
Agility is a terrific outlet. “It’s a positive means of reducing the stress surrounding epilepsy and allows us to be around our extended family, the club members,” Ed explains.
Experiencing Spike’s incredible alert capabilities has led the couple to connect with others who train, certify, and benefit from seizure-alert dogs. The Zuckermans also hope to become involved with Spike in therapeutic research at the Boca Raton Regional Hospital Marcus Neuroscience Institute.
“Spike has opened up a whole new horizon for us and a recognition that there’s so much more to be learned about the dog’s role in assisting others like me,” says Susan. “While epilepsy has forced me to make changes in my lifestyle, Spike has been a guiding force and confidence builder in helping me resume things that were previously routine.”