FRANKLIN, Ohio -- Some kids blame their dogs for eating their homework, but Emalyne Wolfe, a rising fifth-grader at Pennyroyal Elementary, may soon be crediting her dog with helping get her homework done.
Emalyne has a rare form of epilepsy known as Dravet Syndrome, or Severe Myoclonic Epilepsy of Infancy (SMEI), and has experienced seizures since she was 3 months old. Because the seizures are so frequent – sometimes as little as five days apart – she has to have a caregiver nearby at all times. Now that she’s been paired with her own service dog, that soon may change.
“Hopefully, she can become more independent,” said Gretchen Foster, who teaches a first- through third-grade special education class at Pennyroyal Elementary in Franklin City Schools.
Foster has worked with Emalyne – who at school is known by most people as Ema – for the past five years. This past school year, she worked with Abby Michael, who teaches fourth- through sixth-grade special education, to prepare Emalyne to transition to the higher-level class.
Foster’s and Michael’s classes are self-contained, meaning they teach all their students’ academic subjects themselves. Their lessons also incorporate daily living and social skills.
“Depending on the student and grade level, we work on a lot of life skills also to prepare them for the real world,” Michael said.
While Emalyne has some behavior issues, like difficulty managing her emotions, the seizures and their mitigating factors are her biggest challenges at school, said her mother, Michele Wolfe. Because hot temperatures can trigger the seizures, Emalyne sometimes can’t go to recess, eat lunch in the cafeteria or participate in gym activities.
“The big challenge that she has is not being able to go outside and play during recess,” Michele Wolfe said.
When the seizures occur, her caregivers are usually able to stop them using something called a vagus nerve stimulator, a device in Emalyne’s chest with a wire running to the vagus nerve in her neck, which connects to her brain. Holding a special magnet over her chest triggers the device to send mild electrical pulses to the nerve, stopping the seizure.
Because she and her caregivers can’t detect the seizures ahead of time, they can’t stop them until they happen. But, with her service dog, Sif, they hope to be able to prevent the seizures.
Sif is a seizure alert dog trained through nonprofit organization 4 Paws for Ability and paired with Emalyne.
Although she hasn’t worked with the family yet, Sif already is familiar with Emalyne. For some time now, Michele Wolfe has provided 4 Paws for Ability trainers with clothing Emalyne was wearing when seizures occurred. The trainers then used the clothes to help the dog recognize the smell of chemical changes that happen when her seizures take place.
Sif will go through training classes with Emalyne and her mother through July 1, to help acclimate the trio and ensure they’re bonding properly. After the training, she’ll be able to alert caregivers of seizures through an action like barking or spinning in circles.
“Not every dog alerts the same way,” Michele Wolfe said.
Once alerted, Emalyne’s caregivers should be able to stop seizures before they happen by using the vagus nerve stimulator.
Even after the training sessions, it will take time and journaling to learn when and how Sif alerts, Michele Wolfe said. Some dogs alert minutes prior to seizures, while others do so hours or even days ahead of time.
The family is OK with taking its time to get to know Sif, having waited about two-and-a-half years to be united with her.
“It has been a long journey,” Michele Wolfe said.
She submitted an application to 4 Paws for Ability in December 2013. The application was followed by a phone interview, then a couple weeks of waiting before receiving a packet that welcomed the Wolfes to the 4 Paws family and outlined rules and guidelines.
The Wolfes then had to raise $15,000 – roughly two-thirds the cost of raising and caring for the dog until she goes home with the family.
From parent-teacher organization representatives to individual students, members of the Pennyroyal Elementary School community have been very supportive, organizing fundraisers to help, Michele Wolfe said.
Once the fundraising was complete, the Wolfes were put on a wait list for the upcoming class, which will start them on the next part of their journey.
Elementary school students and community members weren’t the only district representatives to assist in the process. Board members for Franklin City Schools were happy to help, too. During their May board meeting, they approved the use of the service dog at school.
“Everybody’s excited about this for Ema, really, and just the prospect of having it,” said Pennyroyal Elementary Principal Tom Pecor.
Emalyne is the first student in the district to use a service dog, but among Tri-State youths, she isn’t alone. Two students at Mason City Schools had service dogs during the 2015-16 school year – one who assisted with seizures, the other with gross motor needs. A student in Kings Local School District will use a psychiatric support dog in the coming school year. Students also have used service dogs at Sycamore Community Schools in the past.
In addition to alerting caregivers of seizures, Sif is trained to help with Emalyne’s behavior issues – something her mother and teachers hope will help her in school and life down the road.
“Hopefully that will strengthen some of her academic skills as she gets a little older,” Michael said.
For now, though, her mother is just looking forward to giving her the freedom to be a kid.
“It would be so nice to be able to give her the independence just to let her go off and play by herself,” Michele Wolfe said.