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Originally published February 10, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 10, 2007 at 12:50 AM

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Service dog has her chance to prance

She has bewitching eyes and dark, curly hair, but Pickles isn't just any pretty face. Laurie Hardman's Portuguese water dog is a rare, Westminster-bound...

Seattle Times staff reporter

She has bewitching eyes and dark, curly hair, but Pickles isn't just any pretty face. Laurie Hardman's Portuguese water dog is a rare, Westminster-bound show dog who's also a service dog, capable of detecting Hardman's seizures before they happen.

In the past, dogs competing at the annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show generally were the best-looking and best-tempered of their breed, but not necessarily trained for anything other than the show ring.

But as more dogs are trained to perform essential tasks for humans, Westminster officials predict a growing number of service dogs will be at the show. Pickles — who lives with Hardman and her husband, Jim, in Seattle's Ravenna neighborhood — is one of two service dogs among the 2,500 who will compete at the Westminster show Monday and Tuesday in New York.

Long ago, most dogs were bred to perform tasks such as hunting or herding. "Now they don't get the chance to do those jobs so much. Their greatest role is as a loving member of the family," Westminster spokesman David Frei said.

Many dogs are emerging with new jobs as hearing, mobility-assistance, seizure-alert or anxiety-relief dogs, Frei said. "About anything you can think of that helps people live a more normal life with the assistance of the animal," he said.

Three-year-old Pickles is multitalented. In addition to working as a seizure-alert dog, she has been used to help children read. Hardman has taken Pickles to classrooms where the dog sits patiently as students read to her. It's part of the Reading with Rover program, in which children with learning disabilities read dogs a story and sometimes show them pictures in the book.

Pet Partners


For information about the Delta Society's Pet Partners program or other services, go to: www.deltasociety.org

"Dogs never laugh at you when you try to read," Hardman said.

Hardman and her husband are members of the Bellevue-based Delta Society, which offers guidelines and certification for service dogs. The Delta Society also certifies Pet Partners, which can be any well-mannered animal — even cats, rabbits and guinea pigs — that can be taken to hospitals and cuddled by patients.

Pickles is both a certified Pet Partner and a service dog.

In 2002, Hardman, then employed as an administrative assistant at Echo Glen Children's Center in Issaquah, began suffering from hard-to-diagnose absence seizures — often characterized by episodes of staring, when awareness and responsiveness are impaired. The seizures increased, and she had to quit her job.

Hardman, now 51, also had migraines. She then had a horrifying grand-mal seizure that rendered her unconscious for six minutes.

She noticed that, just before a seizure, Pickles would begin to spin around excitedly, bark frantically or push her to the couch and lie on top of her, immobilizing her and keeping her from falling.

It's unknown just how dogs can sense impending seizures. Some scientists believe the dogs notice subtle behavior changes. Others believe a keen sense of smell aids in detection of seizures.

Epilepsy experts caution that there is no actual seizure-alert training for dogs, except rewarding those who do give alerts and thereby reinforcing the behavior.

Although Hardman has high hopes for Pickles at Westminster, the dog's most notable role — now that Hardman hasn't suffered a seizure in a long time — is working with disabled or ill children.

This is Pickles' first time at the Madison Square Garden show, where she will compete against other Portuguese water dogs. Five champion dogs were invited to compete, and there was a lottery for other champions in the breed. Pickles — officially known as Champion Do Gato's Cat Woman — won her place via the lottery. Historically, Portuguese water dogs, part of the Working Dog category at Westminster, were bred to dive from boats and retrieve fish and guard the catch. Typical of her breed, Pickles has webbed feet, hypo-allergenic fur and a calm, pleasant temperament.

Several times a week, Pickles goes to Shorewood High School in Shoreline, where she's top dog in a class for students who have emotional or behavioral disabilities. The students learn to train dogs to be Pet Partners, animals that are gentle and well-mannered enough to make hospital and classroom visits.

As the students take turns walking Pickles on a leash along the school's outdoor track, telling her to sit and stay — commands she knows well — the teens are focused and calm, eager to pet her and take their turn. They seem unaware that Pickles is training them in the basics of gentleness, kindness and patience.

Teacher Maureen Setterberg said having dogs in the classroom has been transformative for the students. They now take Pickles, and sometimes other Pet Partner dogs, on field trips to a class of special-needs children at Highland Terrace Elementary School, where Shorewood students show the younger ones how to pet the dog appropriately.

For Setterberg's high-school students, "It's like looking into a window to the past and shows them how much they've grown."

"I think maybe I'm more social now," said student Dan Nelson, 16, who has worked with the dogs for 18 months and now helps train others.

To prepare for the show, Hardman was been working out on a treadmill with Pickles at her side, hoping the dog will shed a little of her post-pregnancy weight from last summer's litter. Then comes a date with the groomer. And it's off to the airport Sunday and showtime.

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or nbartley@seattletimes.com

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