Alaqua Animal Refuge, through its Unconditional Love program, has produced its first dog trained in seizure detection.
The dog with this highly-refined sense of detection is a black lab named A.J. that came to AAR in July as a stray. He was found digging in Dumpsters around AJ's Seafood & Oyster Bar in Destin. He appears to be a full-blooded lab who is about 2 and half years old.
Licensed therapist Adele Leas was the common puzzle piece that linked A.J. with Logan, the child of a friend who has epileptic seizures.
"I was working with Logan every day, and I have worked with Alaqua. It occurred to me one day, wouldn't it be nice if we could find a companion dog for Logan that could detect an oncoming seizure?" said Leas.
She began reading online and learned that an ideal canine candidate cannot be taught to detect such things; a dog either has the instinct or it doesn't.
Logan and his family went to Alaqua and tried taking home different dogs over the span of a few weeks, but it was A.J. that hit it off right away with Logan. During his home visit, A.J. began to alert the family when Logan was going into a seizure.
The decision was then made to send the dog to Bay County Correctional Center for months of training in the Unconditional Love Program, which gives inmates the chance to train service dogs.
Leas, who is a certified Jin Shin Jyutsu therapist, worked with A.J. and his trainer at the Correctional Center, as well as Logan over the span of six months, preparing both for their life at home.
That homecoming came earlier this month, and it was a joyous day for all.
"This has truly been a miracle," said Leas with obvious emotion in her voice. "The young man who did the training at the Correctional Center wanted to meet Logan and I took him out there. After meeting Logan, the trainer changed the way he was training A.J. He began to mimic Logan's mannerisms to prepare A.J. for being with Logan. He was wonderful! We all went to the center and worked together all day. It was very emotional to watch this young man, who had done a fabulous job, have to say goodbye to the dog he had lived with and trained for six months. This has been the most exciting work I have done."
A.J. not only alerts Logan's parents that a seizure is coming, he can open doors.
AAR began its Unconditional Love Project last year. Dogs in this program are trained by inmates at Bay Correctional Facility in Panama City and the ones that graduate are placed in homes or with facilities where there is a special need.
"Seizures are difficult to detect," said AAR Shelter Manager Samantha Graves. "A.J. functioned wonderfully with the family as a certified and trained AKC Canine Good Citizenship dog."
Alaqua supplies the rescue dogs free of charge for prisoners to train to be therapy dogs. Not all graduate or become certified. Dogs that to do not graduate with top honors can still be trained as basic family pets, nursing home dogs, or companion animals for the elderly or special needs. The dogs that go into the program are carefully evaluated and selected by the trained team from the refuge. The program currently only uses the facilities Bay County Correctional, a privately run facility with a variety of rehabilitation and educational programs.
Canines live with inmates 24 hours a day and sleep crated in their cells. Inmates work with the canines on socialization and basic obedience skills initially, and work up to more specific training.
"The program benefits prisoners and dogs," said Graves. "The prisoners who participate in this program are giving themselves a marketable skill they can use when they get out of prison."
Inmates are chosen based on a pattern of responsible behavior while in the facility. They must have good reports from prior job assignments and not have a history of repeated violence and cannot have committed crimes against animals or sexually related crimes.
The program relies on donations, grants and sponsorships for funding. To learn more, visit http://www.alaquaanimalrefuge.org/undonditionalLove. To sponsor a dog in the program, visit http://www.alaquaanimalrefuge.org/unconditionallovedogs.