by Marcia Herman
The phone rang one hot day in July 2005. To paraphrase, the voice at the other end said, “I’ve got a scared little female who has to get out of here. She won’t even come inside the house to eat! She’s different. Will you take a look at her? ” Little did we know that she would become a seizure-alert dog for her greyhound companion-to-be, Cullen.
Eileen McCaughern of REGAP of CT knew we were looking for a smallish greyhound to be a companion to Cullen, our only greyhound, both at home and while RVing in our little camping van. Cullen had been losing his pack one by one over the last two years. For the last three months we had been down to one dog, an unheard of number for us; we were used to having three or four dogs and so was he. Cullen was clearly depressed and pining for the company of another hound; our four cats just didn’t do it for him. We don’t generally seek out dogs to adopt but tend to wait for one that needs us, usually a shy one, a return, or a homeless greyhound. We thought M’s Flying Rita clearly needed Cullen’s confidence and friendliness. I took a look at her and, after conferring with my husband, Doug, took her home the next day. Little did we know that Cullen would need Rita as much as she needed him.
Rita and I met soon after a severe thunderstorm had ended. She was and is an adorable yet very different-looking greyhound — a petite red and white girl with the biggest freckles I’ve ever seen and with a brindle tail that seems to belong on another dog. She was and still is the most petrified-of-everything greyhound I’ve ever known. When we met, rather than saying hello, she fearfully eyed my camera and tried to dig herself under Eileen’s deck. The combination of the storm and the camera flashes were too much for her to bear. Thunderstorms, going through doors, and cameras terrify her equally.
Little did we know that Rita wasn’t merely shy and afraid; she’s also hypersensitive to almost everything and seems to sense things invisible to most mere mortals. Despite her many fears she is friendly to quiet people and likes other dogs, especially Cullen.
The moment Cullen and Rita met in our backyard it appeared that they had known each other forever. We hadn’t done the usual neutral territory introductions because Rita was so nervous; we feared she might escape if the meeting took place out in the open. Happily, our strategy worked; it was love at first sight in our backyard. When they met, Cullen couldn’t stop smiling and Rita became totally calm despite being in a new place. This is clearly a match made in heaven although we knew at the beginning there could be some not-so-heavenly experiences coming up for Rita, given her medication-resistant nervousness and penchant for seeing invisible scary things.
Cullen became epileptic just two weeks before his eighth birthday and eight months after we adopted Rita. This was a total shock to us as he had been healthy all his life, with the exception of a bout of Lyme Disease a year earlier. We soon discovered what one of Rita’s purposes in life was to be. Despite her continuing nervousness and fears, she was to become Cullen’s seizure-alert dog.
After hearing horror stories of dogs attacking members of their pack with whom they get along under normal circumstances, we monitored Rita to see how she would react to a seizure. She did the exact opposite of what we had feared; Rita became even more nervous than usual but was clearly very concerned about Cullen when a seizure was imminent. In the beginning, when Cullen was about to have a seizure that we hadn’t noticed brewing, she’d prance around, dart her eyes as if to tell us, “It’s going to happen, it’s going to happen, can’t you tell?!” and then she’d run frantically out of the room. Her warnings gave us time to collect our wits and to be with Cullen when the seizures hit.
Cullen’s seizures became more frequent as time passed. We discovered that he was in the throes of another bout or possibly a recurring bout of the Lyme Disease he had had in 2004. We treated more aggressively this time and the seizures have become far less frequent.
Rita taught us over time to read Cullen’s pre-seizure signals. Rita now leaves the room before a seizure occurs because she knows we can recognize the signs ourselves and because she hates to watch them.
Thank you, Rita, for being such an effective early-warning seizure alarm system and such a good teacher. Rita’s new job is to warn us when anyone within a 100 mile radius is going to have a thunderstorm. She tells us by quivering, panting, donning her Storm Defender cape, and heading for cover in the house. She emerges when her internal all-clear signal sounds. Rita will always be Rita.
Update: Rita passed away on February 17, 2016 from complications of steroid-responsive meningitis. She had finally calmed down at the age of 11. Good girl, Rita.
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