Gaithersburg girl's service dog takes classmates' focus off her cerebral palsy

Michelle Brown's service dog, Sylvia, can sense when Michelle is about to have a seizure and warn her by whining or barking.
Michelle Brown's service dog, Sylvia, can sense when Michelle is about to have a seizure and warn her by whining or barking. (Naomi Brookner/the Gazette)
By Patricia M. Murret
The Gazette
Thursday, February 25, 2010

Michelle Brown was apprehensive when her parents talked to her about getting a canine assistant to help her in school. But Sylvia, a golden retriever-yellow Lab mix, has changed her life, 13-year-old Michelle said.

"She has changed my life because it makes it easier for me to go to school -- and know that everybody likes me a lot more, and they don't pay attention to my disability as much," said Michelle, who has seizures from cerebral palsy. "She'll never judge me. She'll always want to help me, and she will do whatever she can to make me happy."

Sylvia is known among teachers and students at John T. Baker Middle School in Damascus, where Michelle is an eighth-grader, although she has not attended this school year because of a hip injury.

"We welcome anything that will assist our students to access the curriculum," said Principal Louise Worthington, who said she could not speak about individual students.

Cerebral palsy is a term that applies to neurological disorders that appear in infancy or early childhood and permanently affect body movement and muscle coordination, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.

Michelle, of Gaithersburg, was born premature, and doctors said she could develop seizures, said Dani Boyd-Brown, who adopted her daughter as a newborn in 1996. When Michelle was in elementary school, teachers said she might need one-on-one assistance getting around, so the family began researching how to obtain a service dog.

Canine Assistants, a nonprofit group based in Georgia, brought them Sylvia in 2005. A portion of proceeds from Milk-Bone dog snack sales covers costs, including training, Boyd-Brown said.

Meghan Hopkins of Canine Assistants trained Sylvia as a seizure-response dog. Such dogs lie next to a person during a seizure, retrieve a cordless phone, alert another person if one is available, or press a medic alert button after the seizure.

About 87 percent of such dogs, including Sylvia, also can predict or react in advance of a seizure, usually with behavior such as whining, pawing, pacing, jumping or barking. The reaction "may happen a few to several minutes before a seizure, which can be quite helpful for individuals who do not experience an aura or feeling that the seizure is coming on," Hopkins said.

Michelle might have sequential seizures or have none for months, Boyd-Brown said. She said she trusts that Sylvia will detect the scent or "aura" Michelle's body gives off before a seizure and alert her.

"She is so in tune to Michelle," Boyd-Brown said.

Children used to tease Michelle at school, mother and daughter said. But once Sylvia appeared, the students stopped focusing on Michelle.

"One day she came home and said, 'Mom, I'm not the yucky girl with the braces on her legs anymore. I'm the cool kid,' " Boyd-Brown said.

"And to me, that was worth just mountains. There was nothing I could have done to give her that confidence in life, no matter what. Sylvia just gave her a new level of confidence, whatever she did."

Meet Michelle Brown and her canine assistant, Sylvia, at

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