COLUMBIA — It had gotten to the point where Barbara Willis was afraid to leave her house, even to make a trip to the grocery store.
Willis battled intense headaches that temporarily caused her to lose her sight. The headaches had become so severe and so frequent that she found herself immobilized.
The scariest part was that she couldn't see them coming. Her migraines struck quickly, clouding her vision and rendering her helpless.
“My vision gets so blurred,” said Willis, coordinator for the Civic Leaders Internship Program at MU. “It’s blinding.”
After a migraine forced her to pull off Interstate 70 on a trip home from St. Louis, she began to look for a solution.
She found Sydney, a puppy who could be trained to alert Willis before her headaches struck.
For the past seven years, the golden retriever mix has rarely left Willis' side. When a migraine is nearing, she licks Willis on the ear.
Medical alert dogs such as Sydney are trained to recognize certain scents emitted by the human body.
“Your body chemistry changes as you’re getting ill, and dogs can pick up on that smell," Willis said.
Like people, dogs are social animals and respond well to verbal cues. This allows them to learn an abundance of skills, including how to keep people safe.
In addition to leading the blind, tracking criminals and locating missing persons, dogs can be trained to alert their owners to threatening health issues.
Service dogs can be taught to sense an approaching migraine, seizure or a drop in blood sugar. They can learn to pull wheelchairs, do chores, even steady someone who has difficulty with balance.
Dogs are used to living in groups and are quite responsive to the behavior of their companions, said Monique Udell, a doctoral candidate who researches canine cognition in the University of Florida's psychology department.
They have a high level of responsiveness to conditioning and can form associations between different elements in their environment, Udell said. They're in tune with people because they are able to pick up on those associations.
Her lab has found that dogs have their own sensory system, but their cognition is not necessarily a human-like characteristic.
"A dog's cognition is a flexible trait that can be modified," Udell said.
The trick when training domesticated dogs is to maximize behaviors that are natural, such as sniffing, and work toward modifying a behavior into a needed skill, Udell explained.
Cristi Cook, clinical professor in radiology at the MU Veterinary Teaching Hospital, recently began raising puppies that will eventually be trained to become service dogs.
She and her husband, Jimi, also a professor of veterinary medicine and surgery at the MU Veterinary Teaching Hospital, got their first puppy, Vegas, in early 2008.
They began by teaching him to turn lights on and off, as well as open doors and cabinets. Vegas will eventually learn how to load and remove laundry from the washer and dryer, pick up items off the floor and fetch items off the counter.
Dogs such as Vegas are trained to recognize a word such as "phone" and know what it means, Cristi Cook said. “They actually learn what the object is that you want them to get.”
The Cooks had the dog for about 18 months before sending him away for more advanced training. A few days before Vegas left, Cook tried to distance herself so she would not be too emotional.
“He was so intelligent," she said. "He knew something was different."
Vegas began to ignore her commands and would not let her out of his sight. That's when she realized Vegas was doing exactly what he was supposed to do — alert his owner when something was wrong.
Ann Gafke has been training dogs in Columbia for 40 years and said they have a keen sense of when the people around them need attention. She compared training service dogs to obtaining a college degree.
A person selects a major, a main focus, but must have background information before that is a possibility. The same goes for a service dog.
They first must learn basic directions — sit, stand, stay — before they can progress to more challenging directions, she said.
In the mid-1980s, a serious automobile accident left Willis with the migraines that cause her to briefly lose her eyesight.
She lived for years with the headaches, but when they occurred three times a week, she became increasingly anxious about traveling alone.
“It was disabling,” she said.
At the suggestion of a friend, she looked into medical alert dogs. A trainer gave her a list of intelligence traits to look for when choosing a puppy.
Sydney was the most calm and the most intelligent puppy in the litter, Willis said.
She worked with an animal behaviorist to train Sydney. She put on the same sweatsuit each time she got a migraine and kept the outfit in a plastic bag to concentrate the scent in one place.
Sydney was trained to sniff the bag and associate that smell with licking Willis’ ear. It took about three months of work on weekends for the dog to master the skill.
Now, Sydney notifies Willis about 30 minutes before the onset of a migraine, which prompts her to take the medication that prevents a headache.
The way a service dog is trained is largely dependent on the disability of the owner, Gafke said.
“If you are having trouble picking things up off the floor, you need to train your dog to do that,” she said.
Her training facility, Teacher’s Pet, houses a number of therapy dogs. She and her staff make biweekly visits with the dogs to five hospitals and clinics. They provide emotional support and try to improve the overall health of the patients.
On one of the visits, she and a therapy dog were asked to visit a man in a coma after he survived a violent car crash.
His hand had been clenched tightly in a fist for more than a month, and hospital employees could not pry it open.
With the therapy dog in the room, the nurse took the patient’s fist and gently stroked the animal for several minutes.
“By golly, when she rested the fist on the dog, the hand split open," Gafke said. "That sent chills down all our backs."
The dogs are visibly exhausted after going to a hospital to visit patients, she said.
“They put their all into it,” she said. “These dogs become very aware of who needs them, and they gravitate toward them. It’s really interesting to watch.”
Noah Hartsfield gathers emotional support from his puppy, Tara. He got the German shepherd-Labrador retreiver mix last spring when she was about 6 months old.
Tara will eventually be trained to help Hartsfield manage insomnia, anxiety and the other side effects of a chronic illness. He said his health condition can fluctuate so severely that it has affected his education, already forcing him to drop two semesters of college.
It was Willis who suggested he look into service dogs. Hartsfield, who works in the Office of Service Learning at MU, would often seek comfort from her dog, Sydney.
Hartsfield said his insomnia can make it difficult for him to get out of bed, which can be problematic when he has early morning classes. So, the dog is learning to react to the sound of an alarm clock.
When the alarm sounds, she jumps on his bed to wake him. You can’t ignore a 60-pound dog pouncing on you, Hartsfield said.
“She doesn’t have a snooze button."
With Sydney, Willis no longer worries about doing things on her own. The pair are inseparable and have taken trips together to Colorado and Tennessee.
“I don’t even worry about migraines anymore,” she said. “It’s a miracle in my life. I’m blessed with this dog.”