Couple raising money to train seizure-alert dog

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Kristen Scott had her first seizure when she was six weeks old. She was diagnosed with epilepsy — grand mal and absent seizures, and as she got older, they became more frequent, and more severe.

Still, she was determined not to let the epilepsy stop her from doing everything she wanted to do. She went to school to pursue a degree in education. Her goal was a Ph.D.

During her time in school, she met Robert Hamm. The two hit it off and began seeing each other.

The two were spending time together at the ranch where Scott was living with her malamute/husky mix, Sitka, when she had a grand mal seizure. Such seizures involve a loss of consciousness and violent muscle contractions.

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Moments before Scott fell to the ground, Hamm noticed Sitka sniffing and pawing at Scott’s feet.

When Scott had recovered, Hamm told Scott his suspicions.

“I think Sitka knew you were going to have a seizure,” he said.

“That’s impossible,” she’d replied.

That was in 1994, when the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which defined service dogs as any guide dog, signal dog or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability, was still new.

Service dogs had just begun helping in ways other than as seeing-eye dogs, and seizure dogs were virtually unheard of.

“We sort of pioneered the way for the seizure service dog,” Hamm said .

He’d begun researching, looking for any scrap of proof to his theory. Most of the service dog organizations said they did not offer that kind of training, and that seizures could not be detected. Then he stumbled upon Freedom Service Dogs, an organization that began in 1987, before the ADA.

They said yes, they could help train Sitka, especially since she was already showing signs of seizure detection. Hamm and Scott took her to school, and she became a seizure service dog — one of the first.

Sitka went with Scott everywhere. When Sitka scratched at Scott’s feet and jumped up on her, Scott knew to stop whatever she was doing and lie down.

“When I have a seizure, I fall to the ground, and it can happen anywhere,” she said. “I’ve been at the top of the stairs and fallen down. I’ve broken bones and been bruised. I can really get hurt.”

Sitka kept her safe.

But Sitka had a disability of her own: diabetes. Because of the disease, Sitka went blind. However, she was so good at her job that Hamm and Scott didn’t even know, until she ran out into the road one day, looking lost and seeming not to see the oncoming cars.

The couple took her to Dr. Gary Stuer at the Bethel Animal Hospital, where he put Sitka on a regimen of pig’s insulin.

“He gave her three more years with us. We were lucky,” Hamm said.

Sitka passed away in 2000 and Scott did not pursue another seizure service dog. Having completed enough school to get her education technician certification, she got a job in the Rumford school system in the special education department.

As her seizures worsened, they began to affect her job. She thought about seeking another service dog, but didn’t want to make her condition more noticeable.

“I was afraid that as a teacher, it would be so obvious, and they wouldn’t let me teach,” Scott said.

But as time passed, the seizures became too much.

“The school was concerned, and they had a right to be. I was concerned, too. So I filed for disability retirement,” said Scott, who also had to stop school just shy of getting her Ph.D. “I did all the courses, but I couldn’t complete my dissertation to graduate.”

After that, she decided she was ready for another canine companion.

So she and Hamm began looking. What they discovered was that seizure service dogs do not come cheap. The going rate for a service dog, from adoption to training, is about $6,000.

Scott set up an interview with an organization called Canine Partners for Life. The interview would determine whether she was a good candidate for a service dog, and if she was, they could start the adoption and training process.

She missed her first interview because she had a seizure, fell down stairs and had to be hospitalized.

As she was leaving for her rescheduled interview, she had a seizure in the motel doorway and ended up in the hospital again.

“They said I wasn’t a good candidate because they just saw those two missed interviews,” Scott said.

After being told that even if Scott were approved, there was a five-year waiting list, Hamm decided to try to start the process on his own. After all, he had experience. Sitka had taught him a lot.

That’s how Copper, a four-month-old Redbone Coonhound mix, joined their family. Scott and Hamm adopted him from the Greater Androscoggin Humane Society in Lewiston, and he’s already showing promise.

“I’m kind of encouraged because he’ll go over to her when she’s in bed and smell her feet and lick them,” Hamm said. “She had a minor seizure and he seemed to respond. He started licking her feet a little before it happened.”

The couple’s current focus is teaching the now eight-month-old Copper basic commands, socializing him, getting him accustomed to loud, distracting settings, and raising the $5,000 needed to send him to school.

He will learn things such as how to focus in high-stress places, what to do when he detects a seizure, and how he can effectively detect one.

According to Hamm, the training involves swabbing the inside of the mouth of a person who is having a seizure. The swab is put onto a cotton pad and refrigerated. It’s then used to accommodate dogs to the scent and to reward them when they react accordingly.

Scott and Hamm will interview with Medical Mutts, a training organization in Indiana, when Copper is between one and two years old, to see if he is a good candidate for their program.

“Copper has responded so rapidly to his training so far — he’s the fastest learner I’ve ever seen,” Hamm said. “We just gotta get through the chewing phase.”

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Rumford couple Kristen Scott and Robert Hamm have set up an account for donations toward schooling their dog to detect seizures. The account is at Oxford Federal Credit Union in Norway and Mexico and is under the name of Kristen Scott.

“He’s our big hope,” Robert Hamm said of his dog, Copper, possibly becoming a seizure-alert dog. Hamm said he will try to train Copper himself to detect an odor that comes from the feet of someone about to have a seizure. “He is just as smart as can be,” Hamm said. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Kristen Scott and Robert Hamm have been together for more than 20 years. She has been diagnosed with epilepsy and suffers frequent seizures. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

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