Therapy dog helps student succeed

As you are walking the halls of Laramie County Community College, you might have seen a  beautiful black German shepherd walking beside a young man as he makes his way to class. They are inseparable: Where you find one, you’ll find the other.

Dogs aren’t allowed on campus. But Theia is no ordinary dog. 

Ryan Gissendanner, 20, is a student here at LCCC majoring in biology. Theia is a service dog that Gissendanner has had since February of 2018 when Theia was 8 weeks old. He received her through a donation from a couple from Casper.

Together they make a great team to help detect Gissendanner’s seizures.

He was diagnosed with epilepsy in 2016 after suffering through seizures from as far back as junior high. 

Though Gissendanner’s seizures began sporadically, they have recently became more predictable at one every few months. They have been as bad as grand mal, the violent, thrashing seizures many associate with epilepsy, but Gissendanner suffers what he calls silent seizures more often: When he has a seizure, he stiffens up and his eyes roll in the back of his head, and he may lose consciousness for a moment. Those are easier, but the grand mal seizures are violent enough that Gissendanner has thrown his shoulders out of joint numerous times.

Theia warns Gissendanner by whining and getting up in his face to get his attention when a seizure is imminent. Theia senses an upcoming seizure by smelling the changes in Gissendanners body chemicals. She can sense a difference as early as 20 minutes before the seizure. 

When Theia warns Gissendanner, he finds a  place to lie down. Thiea then jumps up on him and lays over him, making sure to cover his shoulders.

Seizures can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes and leave him tired and taking a nap for the next 12-36 hours. Afterwards he wakes up feeling very sore. 

Gissendanner and Theia were trained at Dogs and Tags K9 training academy in Cheyenne by Paula Cook. Gissendanner’s certification took about a year and Theia’s training is ongoing, though she is a certified service dog. She was taught how to behave in public, sense whether to tell if a seizure is coming, and how to lay on top of Gissendanner so he won’t get hurt during a seizure. 

Gissendanner is currently studying biology, but he hopes to eventually go to the University of Wyoming and earn a Masters degree in geology. School is much harder these days because the epilepsy damages his short-term memory, but he realizes that having a disability means having to adapt everyday to something new and that life is a little more difficult. He could go to school without Theia, but he says it would be hard for him because she has become so much a part of him.

“I rely on Theia for many things, but to mention a few she does have a calming presence,” Gissendanner said. “She protects me when I have seizures and between us there is a relationship where no matter what, she will look after me, and I will look after her.” 

Gissendanner’s face lights up when he speaks about Theia. “She was so black she looked blue,” he said when referring to her coloring as a puppy. “She’s very playful.”

When she wears her vest her attention is solely on Gissendanner. As a puppy, and now, when her vest is on people should not pet her, something Gissendanner will gently explain to strangers and thank them when they listen. When her vest is off, Gissendanner and his family shower her with affection and treat her like a regular dog. When she’s not working,she goes to the local junior high school to run and play fetch with Gissendanner.

“Sometimes it’s frustrating because people want to talk to her and pet her even though it says on her back ‘no talk, no touch, no eye contact,” he said.“What people don’t realize is that they are distracting her from me and potentially putting me in danger. 

Gissendanner doesn’t drive and won’t be able to get his license until he is free of seizures for six months. He resides with his parents and siblings where he gets the support he needs and Theia also has three other dogs to play with. 

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