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Service pit bull helps owner avoid seizures

Published: Tuesday, June 30 2015 8:51 p.m. MDT

Sandra Leavitt works at Enable Utah in Ogden with her service dog, Nikki. , Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012. Leavitt has epilepsy and 4-year-old Nikki can detect when she may be having a seizure and call for help. She is also trained to roll Leavitt over to keep her breathing if she ends up in an awkward position. (AP Photo/Standard-Examiner, Erin Hooley) (Associated Press) Sandra Leavitt works at Enable Utah in Ogden with her service dog, Nikki. , Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012. Leavitt has epilepsy and 4-year-old Nikki can detect when she may be having a seizure and call for help. She is also trained to roll Leavitt over to keep her breathing if she ends up in an awkward position. (AP Photo/Standard-Examiner, Erin Hooley) (Associated Press)

OGDEN — Sometimes in a story about someone being saved, it's unclear who saved whom.

That's the case with Nikki, a 4-year-old American bull/pit bull, and Sandra Leavitt, a 26-year-old production worker at EnableUtah. They've been saved by each other, and it's clear that both of them like it that way.

"I've had people come up to her and love on her and say she's the sweetest dog in the world," Leavitt said.

Because Leavitt, of South Ogden, has had a seizure disorder since birth, she uses Nikki as a service dog.

The day she adopted the animal from the Ogden Animal Shelter, it was actually Nikki who picked her.

"She jumped up on the kennel and started licking my hand," Leavitt said.

And their bond since then couldn't be stronger. They go almost everywhere together.

Sandra Leavitt takes her service dog, Nikki, out for a break at work at Enable Utah in Ogden Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012. Leavitt has epilepsy and 4-year-old Nikki can detect when she may be having a seizure and call for help. She is also trained to roll Leavitt over to keep her breathing if she ends up in an awkward position. (AP Photo/Standard-Examiner, Erin Hooley) (Associated Press) Sandra Leavitt takes her service dog, Nikki, out for a break at work at Enable Utah in Ogden Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012. Leavitt has epilepsy and 4-year-old Nikki can detect when she may be having a seizure and call for help. She is also trained to roll Leavitt over to keep her breathing if she ends up in an awkward position. (AP Photo/Standard-Examiner, Erin Hooley) (Associated Press)

Leavitt never sees the dog as a hindrance, even though she's clear about how much more popular Nikki is than she is at her workplace.

"She's the most popular employee here," Leavitt said.

And Leavitt doesn't mind spending the extra time out of her day to care for her dog because of the care the animal gives back.

"Sometimes you get overloaded," Leavitt said. "If I get stressed, I pet her and she calms me down."

That action alone saves Leavitt's life because stress is the trigger for her seizures.

"People who seize have different triggers," she said. "With some it's strobe lights, for others it's smells. Mine is my stress level."

Nikki first had to undergo temperament testing to determine if she was fit for the job as a service dog.

Then she was trained in basic obedience and public access as well as her specialized training for detecting the scent of Leavitt's blood when she's nearing a seizure. This was done with normal blood samples and blood samples from times when Leavitt was hospitalized for her seizures.

That background came in handy once during Nikki's specialized training. It was two years ago and was the last time Leavitt has had a seizure.

"She responded right," Leavitt said, noting the dog's efforts to bark in a high-pitched tone and to point at her.

Leavitt said changes in her blood occur up to 24 hours before a seizure. The dog can give her up to two hours warning of when she will have an episode.

So far, Leavitt hasn't needed that help again.

But Nikki did indicate another EnableUtah client's oncoming seizure once.

"It's like she is working double time," Leavitt said. "We thought she was picking up on me, and we looked over and he was going into a seizure."

Nikki has the potential to save Leavitt in other ways too.

"I can say someone's name, and she will go to them," Leavitt said.

She said that training could pay off in an emergency when help is needed.

Leavitt also has a special phone designed to enable a dog to dial 911.

The phone has only the numbers 9 and 1 on it.

"I put peanut butter and jelly on the numbers," Leavitt said. "She just had to learn to lick peanut butter and then jelly, jelly. . I wish there was a way I could teach her to do it on my cellphone."

And while waiting for emergency workers to respond, Nikki knows how to roll Leavitt over if she believes it will help her owner.

Leavitt has been employed for two years at EnableUtah. She also does massage therapy and is employed at Bright Blessings, working on Saturdays and by appointment. Nikki stands by and watches her work.

With the help of the dog, Leavitt leads a pretty normal life, except for the need to make sure someone else is home when she takes a shower or bath.

"If I slip and fall in the shower, she's not going to be able to pull me out," Leavitt said of her dog.

Leavitt is grateful to be married to Troy Leavitt, who can provide her with the support her dog can't.

But Leavitt worries that things could change her ability to rely on the dog.

Last spring, the Ogden City Council considered an ordinance that would require pit bull owners to mark their dogs as dangerous and make them significantly increase their homeowners insurance coverage.

It's a measure already approved in other parts of the country, Canada and Singapore, because pit bulls often have been at the center of violent incidents between dogs and people.

The dogs have sometimes been trained for aggressive behavior and bred for dog fighting and for the protection of drug trafficking operations.

But those statistics don't apply to Nikki.

That's why Leavitt took her dog to a City Council meeting last spring to argue against the proposed ordinance.

"The council tried to kick me out until I showed them the service dog card," she said.

Leavitt said she feared if Ogden passed the ordinance, South Ogden would too.

"I couldn't have her as a service dog if I had to mark her as dangerous," she said.

Leavitt said a pit bull is the perfect dog to help her, because they are sturdier than other animals.

"Their bone structure is thicker," she said. "If I seize and fall on her, I won't hurt her."

But she said this type of dog also has the heart for the job.

"Pit bulls bond to you better than other breeds."

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company