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A friend in need, indeed -- Service dog helps Lake Park woman feel safe, protected

JoAnn Schermerhorn sprawled in a kitchen chair at the farm where she lives with her parents. Dressed in jeans and a gray tank top, she appeared comfortable talking about herself and her dog, Rudy.

By all appearances, Schermerhorn is a normal, 21-year-old who likes Garth Brooks and Rascal Flatts, likes Dean Koontz novels and action or thriller movies, and loves to ride horses. And while she is doing most of those things, her dog is by her side.

"Rudy doesn't like it when I go riding because he can't go with me and he can't find a way to get next to me," Schermerhorn said. "He's really nervous when he can't be around me."

Rudy is a smooth-coated collie trained by Hearing and Service Dogs of Minnesota to be a service dog for Schermerhorn, who has epilepsy.

"He goes just about everywhere with me," she said. "He puts on his backpack and he knows he's got to work."

Schermerhorn was diagnosed with epilepsy at the age of 13. She said she has three or four different types of seizures, ranging from focal seizures to grand mal seizures.

During a focal seizure, she said she just kind of spaces out for a little bit and doesn't know what is going on. Most people don't even notice it.

During a grand mal seizure, she said she has convulsions through her whole body. In the past she has bitten her tongue a few times, which really hurts, she said.

"It's a little different for people who haven't seen me have a seizure before. My oldest brother, he hadn't seen me have a seizure until probably just two years ago," she said.

Schermerhorn said her great-grandmother in Arkansas recommended she look into getting a service dog, and her great-aunt told her about Hearing and Service Dogs of Minnesota.

Getting Rudy

The process to get Rudy took about nine months, she said. There was an application to fill out where she told about her seizures, former high school teachers were called on for references, her doctor was consulted for medical information -- all to see if Schermerhorn would be a suitable candidate for a service dog.

Rudy was donated to HSDM by a breeder, Schermerhorn said. More than 50 percent of service dogs trained by HSDM are adopted from local animal shelters like Lucky Dog Boarding and Training Center in Detroit Lakes.

He spent his first year with a puppy raiser, where he was evaluated for his fitness for the HSDM program. He was taken out in public to get him used to everything, received basic obedience training, and got used to wearing a backpack, Schermerhorn said.

After that, he was returned to the organization for assessment to see what kind of service dog he would be trained as and receive more advanced training.

According to the HSDM website,, 45 percent of their trained dogs in 2005 were hearing dogs and 50 percent were service dogs, including seizure response dogs. They also train special skills dogs, who assist people with multiple disabilities.

HSDM is governed by a volunteer board of directors, has eight full-time employees, nine part-time employees, 30 field trainers, 35 puppy raisers, and over 200 total volunteers. The organization supplies the dogs to their clients at no charge. The average cost for a graduated team in 2005 was $22,500.

Rudy is a smooth-coated collie, which Schermerhorn had never heard of before. She said when she heard he was a collie, she thought he'd look like Lassie from TV. Before Rudy came to live with her, she did some research on the Internet to find out what he would look like.

Adjusting to a service dog

Schermerhorn said Rudy's arrival was a surprise. Her parents, Donald and Diane Schermerhorn, had gone to the Twin Cities for a horse event. They saw a booth by HSDM, stopped by, and told the workers they were expecting Rudy to be delivered on Monday. Rudy went home with them that weekend.

Working with a service dog was a new experience for Schermerhorn.

"We did all the training up here with Linda Livingston-Wiedewitsch and Lucky Dog donated obedience classes, because I'm used to having this normal farm dog," she said.

It was a change for Rudy, too. Schermerhorn said when Rudy lived at the organization, he was kept in a kennel or was on a leash all the time. At the family farm in rural Lake Park, that's not always necessary.

"He just loves to get out and go running," she said. "He crawls into bed with me every night."

Schermerhorn and Rudy work on obedience lessons every day, as well as Rudy's "skills," specialized training to assist Schermerhorn during a seizure. She said she thinks the best way to work on training is to make it a game for the dog, and Rudy is rewarded with treats when he performs well.

One of his skills is retrieving a bottle of pills, and sometimes he has trouble telling when the training is over for the day.

"After training he keeps trying to bring everyone my pills to get more treats," Schermerhorn said.

The team received certification from HSDM in late June, and will return to the Twin Cities in November for a graduation ceremony, she said.

Providing a service

Rudy's job as a service dog is to remain near Schermerhorn. He has been through basic and advanced obedience training. He has also been trained to assist Schermerhorn by bringing her pills to help curb a seizure.

"He'll jump up on the counter, grab the pills and bring them back to me."

He is also trained to get someone to help her.

"If I have a seizure, he's trained so that he'll go and get someone and bring them back to me," she said. "Then he'll lay down next to me and lick my neck to try to stimulate my brain in other areas to try to bring me out of a seizure."

Rudy has helped Schermerhorn get out more because when he's with her, she worries less about what would happen if she has a seizure.

"I don't have to worry so much about it if I have to go somewhere. I have a Medic Alert bracelet, but not everyone looks at that," she said.

In the red backpack he wears, Rudy carries medication, information for emergency personnel, and doctor information. The backpack has a sign that says "Please don't pet, I'm working," but Schermerhorn said a lot of people don't pay attention to that.

One thing Schermerhorn would like others to know is that she doesn't mind people asking her questions about Rudy's role in her life.

"A lot of people think he's in training to be a seeing-eye dog, but he's not. He's here to help me out when I need help. Come up, ask me questions, talk to me."