CLEARFIELD — It’s before the crack of dawn. The grass is crunchy with frost and the small brick house is the only one with its porch lights on, casting an eerie glow on the sidewalk.
Britton Voss, a skinny 12-year-old with a shuffle in his step, boards the bus.
A wavy-haired golden retriever boards with him. He is Dopey — Britton’s seizure response dog.
Britton, an energetic boy who loves hugs and Star Wars, has a rare form of epilepsy that causes seizures and developmental delays. As a service dog, Dopey is trained to help Britton by comforting him, fetching medicine or even calling 911 while he’s seizing.
But Dopey also has another ability — one that has baffled scientists and brought the staff at Britton’s school to tears.
Dopey appears to be able to predict Britton’s seizures, often hours before they actually happen.
“You hear about man’s best friend, but there’s something beyond special about the bond between a service animal and who they’re loving and providing for," said Sunset Junior High special education teacher Melissa Lovell.
“Dopey is an extension of (Britton),” she added. “That’s his whole world. That’s his life source.”
At home or at school, at day or at night, as soon as the vest is on, boy and dog are one.
The first time
Lovell was stunned the first time Dopey gave her an “alert.”
A quiet soul with velvety ears and “chocolate chips for eyes,” in the words of one of Lovell’s students, Dopey spends the vast majority of his days laying quietly at Britton’s side.
One day about two months ago, however, he began panting, licking and nudging Lovell’s pregnant belly, more agitated than she had ever seen him.
About an hour later, Britton began seizing.
"I looked at (my lead aide), and we just both looked at each other like 'That is unbelievable,’” Lovell said.
They have a process for seizure alerts now. Lovell clears the other students from the room, places Britton in a safe position on his beanbag and make sure she has the medication she needs in case she needs to intervene.
For the most part, there’s little they can do besides allow the seizure to happen and make sure Britton is safe.
Once Britton starts seizing, Dopey will lick his face until he "comes out" of the seizure, Lovell says. Afterward, Dopey usually cuddles Britton as he naps.
"When you actually witness and see the whole thing from alert to the end of the seizure, it's almost difficult to describe," Lovell said. "You don't want to use the term beautiful for something like that, but to see an animal actually communicate with you and then take a kid out of a seizure ...”
"It was unbelievable," she continued. "You wouldn't even believe it if you didn't see the whole thing from beginning to end."
But that wasn’t the first time Dopey detected a seizure in class.
Months before he ever detected one of Britton’s, Dopey started picking up on another student in Lovell’s class — one who has even more frequent seizures than Britton.
Dopey has predicted seizures in that student more than 10 times, according to Lovell.
Britton's mom, Dawn Voss, said Dopey has never given a false positive, either at home or at school.
"He's their little guardian angel, I guess you could say," Voss said. "They're his boys to watch over."
Sunset Junior High Assistant Principal Matt Christensen said administrators were initially "apprehensive" about having a service dog in a classroom.
Although not unheard of, service dogs for students as young as Britton are not common.
"Once we saw how effective Dopey is at helping not only Britton but the other student, there's no question the dog has been a huge help," Christensen said.
Dopey has been an asset for the entire class, which is a functional skills class for students with moderate to severe disabilities.
"If somebody's having an issue or behavior ... I will say, 'Just look at the dog. Everything's OK,'” Lovell said. “His presence in the room is enough to bring some of our students down — and that is a fact."
Lovell, who is 36 weeks pregnant, jokes that Dopey will alert her that she’s going into labor before she feels the first contraction.
But there’s no doubt that Dopey's No. 1 mission is Britton. Dopey, the gentle guardian and constant companion, rarely takes his eyes off of the boy.
If Britton goes to the bathroom, Dopey goes too.
If Dopey needs to go potty, there goes Britton.
They are together from the moment they board the bus until school ends around 2:55 p.m., and they are together at night, sleeping together in a bedroom filled with Star Wars posters.
"Thank God for Dopey," Lovell said. "It really truly is like having another member of the team."
Voss said she used to worry about Britton getting bullied.
Because children with Dravet's syndrome have a significantly higher risk of Sudden Unexplained Death in Epilepsy (SUDEP) — which often happens at night — she also worried every time she tucked him in for bed.
Now, knowing that Dopey is by Britton’s side “gives me a sense of comfort, especially at night when he’s sleeping,” Voss said. “Now, it doesn’t bother me.”
Science or 'faith'?
There’s no objective evidence that dogs can reliably predict seizures.
The organization that trained Dopey, Noelle's Dogs Four Hope in Colorado Springs, emphasizes that research does not support claims that dogs can be trained to detect oncoming seizures.
The ability appears to be innate to some dogs, especially those that have a strong bond with their owners or handlers, said president Christopher Smith.
Some people theorize that dogs may be able to smell chemical changes in people or detect slight behavioral changes invisible to human eye.
Smith says trainers pick puppies based on their temperament and personality. After eight months of basic obedience training, they begin teaching them how to help their handlers during seizures. Dopey, for example, is trained to block Britton from wandering out of doorways or down stairs while he’s disoriented, so he doesn’t hurt himself.
A lover of data, Lovell has looked into the science of seizure alert dogs herself. But she couldn’t find any scientific proof that dogs can alert to seizures.
The only explanation she has, Lovell says, is “faith.”
"He’s beyond a companion. He's beyond a friend. He's beyond a lifesaver. He's an angel.”