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Candice Hernandez felt a tug on her train. Turning, she locked eyes with the dog nestling in the folds of her silk wedding dress. Chiper, a German shepherd/coonhound mix, stared back, playing dumb. "At least she didn't fluff it first!" says Candice, laughing at the scene from her wedding last year in a rose garden in Winter Park, Florida. "Obviously the bare floor just wasn't comfortable enough for her." Or maybe the dog -- dazzling in her own doggy gown and veil -- was staking out turf. "She wanted to make it clear that Tim was marrying her, too," Candice says, only half joking.
For better or for worse, Chiper always stays within licking distance of Candice: at the movie theater, in aerobics class, on the drenching Congo River Rapids, Candice's favorite ride at Busch Gardens. Her black nose even peeked out from under the tablecloth at a formal banquet the night husband Tim Escandon, 20, proposed. "It was nice having her under the table," admits Candice.
Candice, 22, is always grateful for her canine company. She suffers from epilepsy and never knows when a seizure will strike. Chiper, however, does. Anywhere from 20 minutes to three hours ahead of each attack, Chiper's mysterious sixth sense kicks in and she sounds the alarm by barking, pawing, and nudging her owner. Those advance warnings give Candice time to activate a special device that makes the seizure less severe or aborts it completely.
Despite a family history of epilepsy, Candice didn't develop the disorder until November 2000 when, doctors surmise, a head trauma from a car accident triggered her first attack. One minute she was chatting with friends after chorus practice. The next she was on her back, staring at a circle of frightened faces. Within a month, the teenager, a top student who sang in three choirs, was suffering up to four seizures a day.
Having a seizure is "a marathon workout," says Candice, who had to count on school administrators who were briefed on the disorder to see her through. "Every single muscle in your body contracts tight and you can't do anything to stop it." The seizures became so frequent that Candice had to study from home her junior year.
In May 2001, after two promising medications had failed to help, Candice saw a neurologist who suggested a vagus nerve stimulator (VNS). Sometimes called "a pacemaker for the brain," VNS is a battery-powered device that prevents seizures by sending regular mild pulses of electrical signals to the brain. By passing a magnet over the implanted device whenever she first felt an aura -- the distinctive sensation that signals an attack -- Candice could make a seizure last just five minutes, down from 15 or 20. Although VNS wasn't a cure, it controlled Candice's seizures enough to let her take less medication and return to school for her senior year.
It was good progress but not good enough. Candice wanted even more control over her seizures, especially because of her blossoming relationship with her neighbor, Tim. She worried about the future, too. What would happen when she went to college and teachers and students didn't understand her disorder?
One afternoon while watching her favorite TV show, Unsolved Mysteries, an answer popped out. The episode featured a girl with epilepsy, like her, who used a service dog to stay safe in exactly the types of situations Candice feared.
Using the Internet, she located Canine Partners for Life, a national organization based in Cochranville, Pennsylvania. Founded in 1989, the nonprofit group trains service dogs for people with disabilities ranging from arthritis to quadriplegia, charging recipients a fraction of the $22,000 it costs to prepare the animals (donations offset the balance). To date, the organization has placed dogs in 38 states and has a waiting list of six months to two years, although it often takes longer to get a seizure-alert dog because only six out of 25 service animals typically have the talent.
Knowing this, Candice e-mailed her application and prepared for a long wait. To her surprise, trainer Debbie Bauer called just weeks later to say, "We have the dog for you."
Candice made plans to attend a three-week orientation that October and mailed a bundle of her clothing to Chiper -- who was just finishing her own two-year training -- to familiarize the dog with her scent. (As many as 20 percent of the dogs in the program are rescued from shelters and humane associations; Chiper was part of a litter donated by an individual.)
When Candice arrived in Pennsylvania and met Chiper, "I just fell in love," she says. "I couldn't stop scratching her ears. She was the cutest, most beautiful dog ever."
At first there were obstacles. Candice's stubborn streak made it hard to obey a dog. "My mom used to keep after me: 'Are you sure you're not pushing yourself too hard?' and I'd blow her off, even if I knew she was right. Chiper wouldn't stand for that. I'd say, 'Oh, maybe she's not right, I feel fine,' because I wanted to do what I wanted to do. But if I ignored her, she'd give off this really sharp bark like, 'You'd better listen to me now.'" Eventually, the trainers rewarded Candice -- not Chiper -- with a candy every time she heeded the dog's warning.
When they finally went back to Florida, strict rules were in place to protect the bonding period: No one was allowed to interact with the dog but Candice. Chiper liked that arrangement, happily ignoring everyone but her owner and glowering at the competition: Tim. "She wouldn't even let us hug without nosing right in the middle," laughs Candice, who had been dating Tim for several months by this point. "Sometimes she'd stare him down, like, 'You're coming in between me and Mommy and I don't like you.'" Chiper is still quick to pick sides during lovers' quarrels. "If he comes to apologize after a fight, she'll get in his face," says Candice. "I have to tell her, 'It's okay, go lie down, we're fine.'"
To date, Tim has never come between them -- literally. He walks on Candice's right, Chiper on her left. That's exactly how they processed down the aisle after their wedding ceremony on that day last November: husband, wife -- and dog.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, June 2006.