DACULA - With a big smile and a wagging tail, Lucia greets a visitor outside of her Dacula home with the warm charm that has made the golden retriever so beloved in the American canon of furry creatures.
All at once, her presence is like a blanket on a cold night - complete comfort, insulation from the world that swirls beyond her pristine neighborhood.
This soothing power, this ability to benevolently protect is her reason for being; inside on an overstuffed couch sits 8-year-old Spencer Wyatt, whom Lucia will loyally follow until she takes her final breath.
See, Spencer - diagnosed with epilepsy since the age of 3 - suffers from seizures, some that last for hours. Lucia, trained since she was three days old, has the seemingly superhuman ability to sense when Spencer is about to have a spell and alert his parents, Amy and Greg.
A loyal pet with benefits? Hardly.
"She's not a pet; she's a part of the family," Amy said. "She's just been wonderful to have."
The little boy that could
For a third-grader at Bethlehem Christian Academy, Spencer is somewhat of an old soul.
When asked about the handheld video game he loves to play - it's a Star Wars math challenge - he launches into a thoughtful summary that belies his eight years. This openness comes in handy when Spencer and his mom travel to educate newly diagnosed epileptic patients on what it's like living with the condition.
"In the beginning, we're in space and we have to blast five correct targets," he said. "And once we get to the space ring, we go to light speed. And then we get to the landing hangar, where we have to unlock four doors and face a different villain."
Spencer knows about facing down bad guys: When he came into this world, he beat back the icy grip of death.
First, he had a stroke, at which time doctors pronounced him dead. He managed to hang on, but was not expected to survive the next 24 hours due to major organ damage.
Eighteen hours later, he had a seizure and went into cardiac arrest. As doctors waited for his heart to stop, Spencer's parents prayed over their newborn. Minutes later, his heart rate - at one point just 15 beats per minute - shot up to a robust 150 beats. Life had found a way.
Inexplicably, doctors couldn't find anything wrong with Spencer that they had found earlier.
"There's literally question marks in his medical record where one day it showed he had all this damage and the next day he did not have the damage other than an area of injury on his brain that was consistent with a stroke."
Doctors predicted he would never walk or talk. Spencer had other ideas. At six months old he started therapy to learn basic motor skills and was caught up by the age of 3.
That year, though, he had his first seizure and was diagnosed with epilepsy.
Though he still undergoes weekly therapy, he's had no major developmental side effects. Still he suffers from status epilepticus, a life-threatening condition in which the brain is in a state of persistent seizure. Last summer, he had a four hour seizure.
"We've had a struggle with it," Amy said.
Things improved for the Wyatts in July when they were selected to receive a seizure response dog from Canine Assistants, a Milton-based nonprofit which trains and provides service dogs for children and adults with physical disabilities and other special needs.
Golden retrievers are no doubt lovable. But their appeal is more than skin deep, said Meghan Hopkins, a trainer with Canine Assistants.
"They are very intelligent, very sweet, very loyal" she says. "Just their overall demeanor is great."
On the organization's 18-acre farm, puppies - ranging from golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, and mixes - are trained to obey about 90 commands, such as opening a door with their snout, retrieving the telephone or flipping a light switch. The dogs are considered ready to work at 18 months old.
"Right at birth, we hold them in different postures so they learn to trust people," Hopkins said. "When they are a little bit older, we take them on outings so they are exposed to more."
Applicants are vetted through an extensive application process. The waiting list can be as long as five years. The dogs are provided for life for free, including food and veterinarian services.
Canine Assistants holds several two-week training sessions a year for new clients where they are introduced to their companion and learn to give the commands. Dogs are matched through a personality profile. Spencer got Lucia, his mom said, because he's laid back.
She's also perceptive. She has twice alerted the Wyatts to an impending seizure.
No one knows for certain how seizure response dogs are able to sense an eminent event. Many believe the dog can detect a change in their master's odor or are signaled to the seizure though a frequency humans can't hear.
"We don't know exactly, but they sense that something isn't good," Hopkins said.
Spencer, who sleeps with Lucia nightly, said he's had to adjust to his new friend, but admits he loves her. It appears the feeling's mutual: When he went off to school one day - Lucia doesn't yet join him there - she sat by the door and cried.
Hopkins said this is quite normal: A dog's love, she said, is without limit.
"They are so forgiving, so loving, they don't care that you have a disability," she said. "This is a person who loves them and that's all they care about. If only more people could be that way."