By Joseph Robertia
A wagging tail when you get home from work, a soft tongue licking your cheek, the feel of fur tickling your fingertips — there is a lot to like about living with a dog. But for Kalifornsky Beach Road resident Donald Duncan, having a canine companion means more than owning a pet. His service dog in training may one day save his life.
“She’s not Lassie yet. She still has a way to go, but that’s the hope,” Duncan said, referring to his service dog, a Chihuahua-Pomeranian mix named Dolly.
Compared to more typical larger service dogs — such as German shepherds, Labradors or golden retrievers — it’s hard to imagine how this tiny, tricolored, kin-to-a-terrier pooch that weighs less than 10 pounds could save a man’s life. That is until Duncan’s medical past and present are fully understood.
Not only does 60-year-old Duncan live alone, but back in 2010 he had a stroke, leaving him paralyzed across the left half of his body.
“It was rather severe,” he said. “It took me a long time just to learn to walk and talk again.”
In addition to requiring the use of a cane, Duncan said he also experiences a condition called transient ischemic attack, which is a neurologic dysfunction caused by a disruption of cerebral blood flow. They are frequently referred to as ministrokes and can cause the same symptoms, such as paralysis, sudden weakness or numbness, sudden dimming or loss of vision, slurred speech and mental confusion. He’s also got six stents in his heart. Having a TIA is a risk factor for eventually having another full-blown stroke.
“I was having TIAs weekly. They were scary and dangerous,” he said.
Seeking regular medical help for his condition, a physician suggested Duncan consider getting a service dog. After researching various breeders, Dolly came into his life on April 20, 2012 — the one-year anniversary of the date that his youngest sister, Bobbi Sue, died of cancer. Dolly was born April 3, 2012, on Bobbi Sue’s birthday.
“I call her my gift from heaven,” Duncan said.
She went into service dog training immediately to be registered through the United States Service Dog Registry.
“Dolly helps me though it,” Duncan said. “Focusing on her keeps me tranquil and my stress down. I haven’t had a TIA in six weeks and the last one was mild. She also gives me exercise. I’ve learned to walk better just from taking her on regular walks.”
The ultimate goal, like with a service dog owned by a diabetic that can sense when their owner’s blood sugar is dropping to dangerous levels and alert them, is that Dolly could alert Duncan to the onset of a TIA.
“She’s still in training because she’s young, and she’ll likely have to go Outside to finish her training, but she’s so small she basically lives on my chest, so the hope is she could learn to detect an abnormality in my heart rate,” he said.
The dog is taught to normally remain silent unless something is amiss, so sudden barking would alert him of an impending TIA. And if he were already too far into a sudden seizure, the dog could call for help.
“I live in an apartment and my neighbors know about my condition and Dolly, so they know if they hear her barking like crazy to come check on me,” he said.
“Barking is for alert purposes only, although she is a puppy and gets excited now and then and forgets this — especially over moose,” he said.
Dolly still has months of training to go before she reaches this point, but Duncan said she is doing well so far, and he already is inseparable from his tiny heart monitor.
“We do everything together. I also do consulting work in town, so she’ll come to work with me and sit on my lap when I’m there,” he said. “She helps me though everything and I’m glad she’s here.”