A "Guardian Angel" With Four Legs

Mark Strassmann is a CBS News correspondent based in Atlanta.
Mitch Peterson has a new leash on independence. And for that, he can thank Jennifer Arnold.

In Monmouth, Illinois, Peterson's one of three million Americans with epilepsy. First diagnosed when he was fourteen, his seizures became so regular, and so severe, he became a suicidal shut-in. Two years ago, one gift turned his life around. His gift was London, a four-pawed mix of golden retriever and labrador. London's no ordinary pet. He's a "seizure-response dog," specially trained to help someone with epilepsy. London helps Mitch with everyday tasks, like turning lights off and on, and carrying wallet on shopping trips. But whenever Mitch has seizures, London's trained to fetch Mitch's medication, stand guard, even bark for help. No wonder Mitch calls London his "guardian angel."

If Mitch's "angel" was heaven-sent, but Jennifer Arnold bred, raised and trained him. She founded a special kennel, "Canine Assistants," in Alpharetta, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. For the last twenty years, Arnold's team has turned puppies into dogs that have given seizure patients not just companionship, but a future and independence they once thought unimaginable. The dogs are usually labradors or golden retrievers or some mix of the breeds.

As a teenager, Arnold herself was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She and her father heard of seizure dogs, which were even more rare back then. But before he could find one for his daughter, Arnold's father was killed walking on a sidewalk by a drunk driver. Arnold never got her dog. But she never forgot about the possibility, either. Her experience with MS as a teenager, she says today, is "what drives me very single day of my life to get up and try to get the people who need the dogs, dogs."

Raising and training the dogs takes two years. It's expensive: more than eighteen thousand dollars per dog. But seizure patients who gets one of Arnold's dogs pay nothing. Sponsors pick up every penny of the tab. As you can imagine, there's a lengthy waiting list. Arnold's staff has a tough time deciding which applicants get priority. Every year, about 120 people from across America get a dog.

As remarkable as Arnold's story is, her dogs may actually have a better one.

Simply put, the dogs may be able to predict a seizure before it happens. No one knows how the dogs develop this intuition. Various theories point to something that the dogs may smell, or a change in the electrical field. But as Arnold puts it, "The dogs go berserk. You can tell something is very distressing to the dog." It's a controversial claim. Some seizure experts scoff at the idea that dogs have this sense, whatever explains it. Arnold says no one can train a dog to have this sense. But she insists 88 percent of her dogs develop this sense within the first year of placement.

Mitch Pederson supports Arnold's claim. He says on a half-dozen occasions, London has anticipated one of Mitch's seizures. The dog started to bark. Then he has physically forced Mitch to stay sitting or to lie down, because London knows that's where Mitch is safer during a seizure.

Today Peterson's no longer a shut-in. He works in a local library in his hometown, lives on his own, and has a girlfriend. Independence was his driving goal. London gave him that chance. He calls the dog his "godsend."

There are hundreds of seizure patience with stories similar to Peterson's. And with each of them, the happy ending began with a trip to Georgia, and an introduction to one of Jennifer Arnold's four-legged guardian angels.

  • Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001 and is based in the Atlanta bureau.