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It's all about the dog

By JONATHAN CHARLES FOX
Posted 11/26/19

Yes, I’ve said that before, but this time I really mean it. Believe it or not, as of Monday, November 25, Dharma the Wonder Dog is now 10-years old. I’m still in denial, especially since …

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It's all about the dog

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Yes, I’ve said that before, but this time I really mean it. Believe it or not, as of Monday, November 25, Dharma the Wonder Dog is now 10-years old. I’m still in denial, especially since folks who just meet her think she’s a puppy, but that’s the Havanese breed for you, unlike me, eternally youthful. I had never heard of the Havanese before that fateful day, about 11 years ago, when I received a call that would prove to change my life. 

“Congratulations, you’ve been selected to participate in our service-dog program,” said a rep from an organization that helps people like myself. “I’m not blind!” I shrieked back in consternation and disconnected, only to have the phone ring again. “Don’t hang up,” the caller suggested. “There’s something fairly new and we think it might be perfect for you.” After a lengthy conversation, I was made aware that now people with epilepsy (like me) can have a “seizure-alert” dog trained to assist them with everyday life. “Interested?” my rep asked. “Well, sure… I mean, yeah” I responded sheepishly. “Tell me more.”

Thus began my adventure with Dharma, who had yet to be conceived at that time. I learned that the organization works with breeders and rescue organizations to match potential service animals with humans who have a variety of physical limitations, including diabetes and epilepsy. There are dogs that can even smell cancer cells before they’ve been detected by conventional medical techniques. And so began my investigation. 

A fascinating special on PBS delved even further into the miraculous assistance that we’re still learning dogs can provide. “For one thing, they possess up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to about six million in [humans],” claimed the NOVA program I found on www.pbs.org. “And the part of a dog’s brain that is devoted to analyzing smells is, proportionally speaking, 40 times greater than ours. Dogs’ noses also function quite differently than our own.” By then, I was hooked.

Being paired with a breeder near Pittsburg, PA, I learned that although “scent-alert” is not breed-specific, it had been recently discovered that the hypo-allergenic, non-shedding Havanese were originally bred in Cuba to be companion animals, and as such, made “excellent candidates” for service dogs. “They’re part of a group affectionately known as “Velcro dogs,” I was told, and thus the adventure truly began. Dharma was born in a litter of nine, and when I travelled to meet the puppies, I had no clue how the process worked. After being licked and wagged at by more than a dozen puppies in all, Dharma casually strolled over calmly, and curled up in my lap. 

“Well, there you have it,” said the rep, who was observing the interaction between me and the pups. “But, but…” I stammered. “I want that cute black-and-white one over there,” I said, referring to a rough and tumble rascal trying to get my attention. “Yeah, that’s not how it works. The dog has to pick you. Now let’s get her tested.” A trip to the Companion Dog Institute (which unfortunately no longer exists) in upstate New York concluded that she was up to the challenge. Dharma quickly learned how to alert me to subtle changes in the chemistry in my brain, giving her the ability to warn me of an oncoming seizure. Thanks to Dharma, I became able to take my medication as needed rather than on a constant basis.

Since then, we’ve become inseparable, and she’s become a bit of a celebrity. “Oh, look,” I often hear while covering four counties, 60 communities and two states for the award-winning River Reporter. “There’s Dharma the Wonder Dog,” they whisper, “and that guy from the paper.” Nice.  

Aside from that, I’m on Thunder 102 (and 104.5) Country radio every Thursday from 7 to 9 a.m. where host Paul Ciliberto never fails to mention her name first. “Is that the Wonder Dog?” folks often ask when I’m in line at the bank or buying groceries around town. “I hear her all the time on the radio.”

“You hear her,” I growl back in mock horror, but it’s true. I’m persona non grata whenever she‘s recognized, but truth be told, I’m okay with that, because without Dharma, my life is less than. The fact that she is universally loved throughout the Upper Delaware River region is a plus, and it warms my heart to see kids asking to pet her and adults who collect the TRR “Pawtographs” we hand out at public functions. Better still, Dharma allows me the opportunity to share her amazing story with folks who, like me, might have been hitherto been unaware of the many amazing abilities that many animals have, some of which we’re just now discovering. “And she’s so cute,” someone enthused at the Narrowsburg Union just the other day, as Dharma held court, graciously posing for photos. “Yeah,” I shot back. “I can’t take any credit for that—I didn’t make her, you know.” But she has, in fact, made my life so much better—so much more worth living—and she brings joy to all she comes into contact with. Can’t ask for much more than that. 

Happy birthday, Dharma. You really are a Wonder Dog, IMHO. 

To learn more about seizure-alert dogs visit www.k94life.org and www.epilepsy.com.

Follow my constant companion on Facebook and read all about her adventures right here in the award-winning River Reporter's website. 

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