Charlie was stretched out on a mat near Matthew Campman’s desk at Ocean Bay Middle School in Myrtle Beach last week, appearing to be very relaxed even though he was on duty.
“This is his signal to work,” said Campman, pointing to the blue jacket the Labradoodle wears. “He’s paying attention even when it looks like he’s not.”
Charlie is Campman’s service dog and has been his constant companion since the seventh-grade social studies teacher began having seizures several years ago. The 4-year-old Labradoodle – the first service dog to be used in Horry County Schools – senses when a seizure or health problem is about to occur and is trained to alert Campman by licking his arms so he can prepare and be safe from injury. Campman said Charlie provides him a level of comfort and security that allows him to remain in the classroom.
“I had multiple seizures and was having them frequently – I’ve fallen down stairs and shattered my eye socket,” said Campman, 41. “At one point, the rescue crew knew me – my children would say, ‘Your friends are here.’”
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Campman was in his first year at Ocean Bay Middle when he suffered his first seizure in 2009. He was unable to recognize his wife in the hospital and went into cardiac arrest, then a coma for two days before spending almost a week at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. Despite ongoing monitoring and tests, doctors are still unable to give him a diagnosis.
“They said I was probably one of the most interesting things they’ve encountered,” Campman said.
Campman’s wife began doing research and learned about dogs that assist seizure patients. They found Charlie through Murray Craft with the nonprofit Second Chance Canine League, who worked with Campman to get the right type of dog and to be able to afford it financially. Campman said Craft suggested a big dog for him because he’s a big guy, but a Rottweiler, pit bull or German shepherd is not perceived to be the kid-friendly breed a teacher needs by his side.
“Finally, he said ‘Labradoodle,’ and I told him I didn’t want any kind of oodle,” Campman said, “but when I met Charlie, I knew he was it.”
Charlie can legally go wherever Campman goes, but the teacher had to work with Horry County Schools to have Charlie on the job fulltime. Campman said it took a while to get Charlie’s clearance, but his principal and the staff were “super supportive,” and the district was looking at the needs of everybody.
Traci Hogan, HCS executive director of federal programs, said two students in the district also have used service dogs, which perform certain tasks that allow those individuals to access the school environment without any barriers. There are no guidelines from the state Department of Education on the use of service animals, she said, but there are policies and procedures that have been developed by the district.
The district is not responsible for the care or training of service animals, and the family must provide a handler for the animal if the individual can’t handle it themselves, Hogan said. The family also must provide documentation verifying the animal has been properly trained and vaccinated, and have liability insurance, she said.
Charlie keeps to a tight schedule, Campman said, and is trained to eat and go out in the morning and again when they return home from school. Labradoodles also are hypoallergenic, shedding less and being less likely to have allergens than other breeds, he said.
The school sends a letter at the beginning of the year to inform parents that a dog is on campus every day, and Campman introduces Charlie to each grade level, instructing them not to call or pet him unless they’ve been given permission. He said a second letter also is sent to parents of the children in his classes.
“I always saw Charlie when I was in sixth grade, and this year, Mr. Campman introduced him to us,” said Zachary Sewelo, 12. “When I first walked in, I thought he would jump or bark, but he didn’t. … I’m not a big dog person, but I barely notice him.”
Campman said he hasn’t had a seizure since Charlie’s been around, and that the dog relieves his stress, which is one of the big triggers for his condition. Charlie has gone on alert at the school, however, head-butting and licking a fellow teacher, who turned out to be ill, he said.
“When I had my seizure, I didn’t know where I was, when it was or who I was – it was very scary,” Campman said. “We practice, and I know what he will do if I have a seizure. Having him makes me feel very secure.”
Guidance counselor Rhonda Patel said there haven’t been any problems or complaints about Charlie, who has his photo in the school yearbook and his own ID card.
“He’s just a part of our family,” she said.
School nurse Amy Shockley agreed, saying Charlie is just like a person and a part of everybody’s day.
“He’s very professional,” Shockley said, “and it’s neat how the kids are respectful of his role.”
Sometimes new students struggle to avoid calling and petting Charlie, “but the staff is the worst,” Campman said with a smile.
“Nobody says hi to me, they say hi to Charlie,” he said. “Everyone wants so badly to pet him, but they respect the situation.”