Before she moved to Mooresville, Sharon Hermansen trained dogs for search and rescue, tracking, service, obedience and narcotics searches. But she had never trained a seizure-assist dog and was unfamiliar with the term.
Then someone requested help with a seizure-assist dog, and Hermansen could not refuse. She chose a yellow Lab puppy and trained it. During a training trip to Wal-Mart, the dog's new owner was ecstatic that her independence had been restored.
Hermansen had found a mission. She created Canine Seizure Assist Society of North Carolina. As executive director and head trainer at the 14-year-old nonprofit, she provides help for people suffering from seizure disorders. The society has seven board members and is recognized by the Epilepsy Foundation.
Hermansen has trained 50 dogs for people within 50 miles. She also has used the Internet and telephone to help people elsewhere in the U.S. as well as in India and Brazil.
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There's no particular training method to teach a dog to alert someone before a seizure. Hermansen does not guarantee the dogs she trains will do so, but they at least will assist the person before and after the seizure.
Even so, every dog she's trained has gone on to alert the owner before the onset of a seizure. It's not known how dogs anticipate a seizure, but she uses scent training in case smell is a trigger. To alert to a seizure, a dog exhibits unwanted behavior such as jumping, licking or barking.
When a person has a convulsive seizure, an assist dog rolls them onto their side. If the dog is too small, it turns the person's head to the side.
An assist dog becomes a person's lifeline. Hermansen calls epilepsy "an invisible disability." When in public, the animals wear a vest emblazoned with "Seizure Assist Dog."
"Unlike other service dogs, seizure dogs work all the time," she said.
No one breed is best, Hermansen said. Mixed-breed dogs are as reliable as purebreds, and 75percent to 80percent of the dogs are rescues.
Hermansen helps clients choose their companions. Dogs move into their new homes as puppies for bonding, and a trainer visits once a week.
"Dogs are socialized with people in uniform, such as police and firemen," Hermansen said. "For example, a fireman will assume the role of an injured person, and the dog responds."
Training lasts two years; Hermansen wants an assist companion to be mature and reliable. "It must be able to stay with the person and be prepared to work," she said.
Cost and upkeep of a dog is the owner's responsibility. The society provides leads, vests, collars and treats for training.
Hermansen's church has set up a fund to aid people who can't afford dogs. Sponsorships are available.
The society organizes fundraisers all year.
At 7 p.m. Oct. 23, the society will host a mystery night at the Charles Mack Citizens Center. As a play unfolds, members of the audience will interact with actors to solve the mystery. Dinner will be catered by Brixx's Pizza.
Tickets are $35 in advance at 704-663-1427, or firstname.lastname@example.org.