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Wonder Dogs

“The clincher was waking up in my car,” she says. “I had driven to a store where I had bought some items. Later, I asked the clerks if they noticed anything strange. They said I was in my pajamas and glassyeyed, but I gave them the right change.”

Her sleep specialist, knowing that dogs alert to seizures, wondered if a dog might stop her from sleepwalking. Atchley consulted with a certified animal behaviorist and researched various breeds for a year and a half before narrowing her choice to a Rhodesian Ridgeback. “I needed a dog big enough to block the door and smart enough to think on his own and troubleshoot,” she says. Nigel’s initial training was simply staying with her 24/7. Three weeks after arriving, he banged on his crate until Atchley woke up. To be certain it was an alert, though, the two entered a sleep study. Monitors at the hospital clinic confirmed that moments before Atchley entered the dream state that led to sleepwalking, Nigel air-scented and alerted.

“I haven’t left the house [in the middle of the night] since I got him,” she says. So that Nigel could stay on the required schedule and accompany her to work, Atchley gave him extensive obedience training and socialization, and Nigel became a certified therapy dog. Still, it took four attorneys to help her convince her employers that he is, in fact, a service dog.

The highly trained dogs who help the blind and disabled obviously provide a service. Nigel’s service is not so obvious, and the same is true for psychiatric service dogs. Joan Esnayra, a biologist and former program officer at the National Academy of Science, is working to open people’s eyes to this more subtle form of service. When she realized her dog alerted to hypomania (an abnormal mood state), she published her findings in a journal of psychiatric services. Then, she founded the Psychiatric Service Dog organization. Now she’s working with the U.S. Department of Defense on what she and research psychologist Craig Love hope will be an 18-month study at Walter Reed Army Medical Center on the use of dogs to help soldiers with PTSD.

“We’ll have psychometric instruments administered by trained clinical psychologists,” she says. “This is real science. I know we’re on the cusp of something big. ”At a military health research conference recently, Love and Esnayra presented the results of a survey of 39 people with PTSD teamed with psychiatric service dogs. Eighty-two percent reported fewer symptoms and 40 percent used fewer medications after getting the dogs.

“Some people think that if a dog initiates a behavior on his own, it’s not disability- related assistance because it’s not related to a command,” Esnayra says. “We have standards. The dogs need obedience training and public access skills. But we approach dogs as beings with perceptive intelligence and independent intellects. I think we don’t yet know what dogs can tell us.”

Find It
It’s possible that, like Nigel, psychiatric service dogs perceive changes through their sense of smell. Indeed, many of the new jobs for dogs center on this extraordinary ability of our four-legged friends to detect and differentiate scents, an ability long employed by the police and military. In fact, to develop its conservation canine program, the University ofWashington’s Center for Conservation Biology began with narcotics-dog trainers.

“Working initially with the Washington State Department of Corrections, we literally started with our dogs working on marijuana,” says Dr. Sam Wasser, the center’s director. “When the trainers would usually shift to heroin, we went to poop of the target species. ”Now, teams of dogs trained at the center track populations of wild animals for environmental studies by air-scenting for scat—moose, caribou and wolves in northeastern Alberta oil fields, endangered northern spotted owls in the Pacific Northwest, and orcas in Puget Sound, among other animals. Dogs even track pocket mice the size of golf balls with poop the size of sesame seeds.

Similarly, dogs working closer to home find sewage leaks and mold as well as bedbugs, underground bumblebee nests, termites and other unwelcome creatures. Pepe Peruyero, a former police dog trainer who trains entomological and other scent dogs at his J&K Canine Academy near Gainesville, Fla., has developed a proprietary training method using food rewards.

Barbara Robertson is an award-winning freelance journalist who lives with her husband and three dogs in Northern California.

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