Brandon Martel, 15, relies on his Labradoodle, Sophie, to
help him during stressful times when he is prone to having
seizures from an as-yet-undiagnosed condition.
Photos by Libby Volgyes/The Coastal Star
By Arden Moore
Little did Brandon Martel realize that when his parents gave him a spirited puppy named Sophie two years ago that this Labradoodle would grow up to become his most trusted health ally.
After experiencing a seizure at school on Jan. 13, 2012, this 15-year-old Ocean Ridge teen collapsed and hit the floor hard. For the past year, local physicians and specialists at Miami Children’s Hospital have performed tests (ruling out a brain tumor), but have yet to pinpoint the source of Brandon’s condition.
All Brandon is certain of is that he is desperately afraid to be left alone for fear that he will pass out, hit his head and bleed. He is now home-schooled and takes anti-seizure medicine daily.
In searching for remedies, his parents, Cindy and Victor Martel, investigated the possibility of pairing their youngest son with a certified service dog trained in detecting early triggers for seizures and capable of positioning quickly and calmly by Brandon’s side.
Service dogs from national agencies typically cost more than $10,000 to train, and there are often waiting lists. And pairing a service dog with an individual can be challenging.
Then the Martels discovered a veteran service-dog trainer right in their own county: Nick Kutsukos of Elite K9 Academy.
For four decades, Kutsukos has been providing customized service-dog training in South Florida that meets the guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act. He is the patriarch of a three-generation family dog-training center based in Jupiter.
“A service dog is trained to assist a disabled person and make their life as normal as possible,” Kutsukos says.
For the past several months, Kutsukos has been working a few days a week with the Martels in honing Sophie’s service dog skills.
“Sophie is a very sweet dog who loves to be with Brandon,” Kutsukos says. “It has turned out to be a great match. The medical field can’t figure out what is wrong with Brandon, but we’ve made a lot of progress. When we first started, Brandon was too afraid to walk further than one house from his own; and now with Sophie by his side, he is walking down the block and going to shopping malls and restaurants. Sophie is a smart dog who wants to learn, wants to help Brandon.”
Adds Brandon: “Sophie is helping me get through stuff when I get anxious or worried. I give her a hug and she has a way of calming me. She stays by me and leans against me when I start to have a panic attack. Now whenever I say, ‘Let’s go to work,’ she comes right up to me and sits down. She gets in a calm mode and concentrates on me.”
Progress is steady but there have been minor setbacks. In November, the training took them to the Boynton Beach shopping mall, where the goal was for Sophie to stay quiet under the table during lunch. According to Kutsukos, Brandon “zoned out, got up and went outside” and began experiencing quick, shallow breaths — the prelude to a panic attack and passing out.
“I brought Sophie out to him and she was able to calm Brandon down,” he says. “Normally on the onset of a panic disorder, a person will emit a scent that trained dogs can pick up. It has to do with changes in the body chemistry, and we are training Sophie to be able to detect this scent and go immediately to Brandon and not pay any attention to any other dogs or other distractions. We are making good progress.”
Kutsukos is optimistic that Sophie should meet all the requirements to become a certified service dog within a couple more months if they continue the three-times-a-week customized training sessions with Brandon.
“I’ve trained dozens of service dogs for people as young as 5 and as old as 88 and for each one, we tailored the dog’s training skills to meet the needs of the person with a disability,” says Kutsukos. “I’ve trained all kinds of dogs from German shepherds to toy poodles to mutts. If the dog’s personality is good and the dog is willing to learn, the breed means nothing. And Sophie definitely has the temperament and ability to become a great service dog for Brandon.”
And after watching the transformation of Sophie, Cindy Martel says, “At first, I had my doubts. I did not think Sophie could be trained to be a service dog. Why, she used to jump up playfully to greet guests in our homes. Sophie is so comforting to Brandon and she listens and obeys so well. She amazes me with how well she is in tune with Brandon.”Ú
To learn more about veteran dog trainer Nick Kutsukos and his Elite K9 Academy based in Jupiter, visit www.elitek9academy.com.