LEWISTON — When Christy Gardner is about to have a seizure, Moxie bumps her leg.

If that subtle warning doesn’t get Gardner’s attention, the 3-year-old golden retriever takes Gardner’s wrist in her mouth, tugs her to sit on the floor and puts her paws on her to keep her down.

If Gardner needs the phone to call for help, Moxie grabs it. If she can’t talk, Moxie knows how to open the front door and go get help herself — by ringing the neighbor’s doorbell. 

It’s a furry safety net that has allowed Gardner, a 29-year-old wounded Army vet, to get her independence back. 

“She’s absolutely changed my life,” Gardner said.

Gardner has always been active, self-sufficient, strong. She played sports at Edward Little High School in Auburn and was an athlete in college. After graduation, she joined the Army, attracted to the military’s adventurous lifestyle. She wanted to train as a combat photographer, but opted instead for military police school when she learned women aren’t allowed in combat roles. 

For a year Gardner was stationed in Korea. Then, one day in 2006, there was an accident.

Some of the details are hazy, others Gardner doesn’t want to talk about. What is known: She took a direct hit to the forehead in the line of duty. The hit fractured her skull and damaged her frontal and temporal lobes. 

For a long time Gardner had problems walking, talking and completing basic tasks. She couldn’t remember her old teammates from college or much of her childhood. She suffered from grand mal seizures that struck without warning.

“When I lived in Texas (during treatment), I had a seizure at one of the buildings and went face first into some stairs. I ended up breaking my cheek bone in two spots and my jaw and the side of my skull. Again,” Gardner said.

Once fiercely independent and athletic, she was told she couldn’t even shower without someone there to make sure she didn’t get hurt.  

Speech, occupational and physical therapies improved her physical disabilities and her memory problems enough to allow her to return to Maine to live with her parents. Medication helped the severe seizures, but she still had up to four a month. They were enough that she had to wear a helmet to protect her head in case she fell, and she couldn’t live alone.

And then Moxie arrived.

She was 9 weeks old at the time, a golden ball of fluff from Susquehanna Service Dogs, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit that trains and places service dogs. Gardner’s doctor had suggested she get a service dog, one that could alert her to a seizure minutes before it happened, giving her enough time to get somewhere safe and sit down, reducing the chances of getting hurt. Gardner, who had always loved dogs, agreed.

She raised Moxie until the retriever was 6 months old, then gave her up for a year of training in Pennsylvania. In school Moxie was mellow and easy to teach. She graduated when she was 18 months old, about six months early.

No one knows how dogs can tell when someone is about to have a seizure, but to Gardner it’s clear that Moxie can. In the last year and a half, Moxie has missed a seizure only once. She also gave a false alert once, tugging Gardner down in the middle of Walmart, where the pair stayed for 20 minutes until it felt safe to get up. The rest of the time — one to four seizures a month — she’s gotten it right.

When she’s not on duty, Moxie likes getting head scratches, playing with soccer balls and keeping tabs on the kitten Gardner recently adopted for her as a playmate. But she abandons all that when Gardner slips her into her service dog vest. 

“She knows she’s working and she’s very mellow and mature that way,” Gardner said. 

Having Moxie by her side has allowed Gardner to live alone, work as a lacrosse coach and assistant girls soccer coach at Lewiston High School, and take classes at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. It’s also allowed her to get into sports again. She’s a member of the U.S. Women’s Sled Hockey Team, a Paralympic-class team for players with disabilities. Rather than hockey skates, players slide across the ice on special sleds. Gardner has flown across the world to play, with Moxie traveling beside her.

“She’s really cute. She sits in the window seat and watches (out the window), like a dog,” Gardner said.

Gardner is rarely separated from Moxie. The law allows service dogs to go everywhere, including stores and buses, though Gardner finds she sometimes has to fight for that right when a business owner isn’t aware of the law.

There’s only one place Moxie can’t go: onto the skating rink during a game. Instead she watches from the side. Unhappily.

“She shakes,” Gardner said. “Everybody thinks she’s just cold, but really she’s nervous because she can’t get to me.”

Gardner recently celebrated a milestone. She’s been two months without a seizure. Doctors have allowed her to lose the helmet she used to protect her head.

Moxie, however, isn’t going anywhere.

“She’s definitely peace of mind,” Gardner said.

Have an idea for a pet feature? Contact Lindsay Tice at 689-2854 or e-mail her at [email protected]

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