Whether walking through her yard, making her way through grocery stores or just sitting on a cozy couch at her home in Avon, Nikki Klohr has a constant companion: her service dog, Lacey.

Before the two met earlier this year, Nikki’s life was filled with uncertainty, but the two seemed destined to find each other. Now, Lacey refuses to let Nikki out of her sight, or more specifically, her scent. Picking up traces of pheromones from Nikki is Lacey’s number one job – the special ability allows her to keep her owner safe.

Life before Lacey

At six months old, Nikki was diagnosed with epilepsy, a neurological disorder that causes seizures. She began having at least 20 seizures each day. At six months she was medicated to control the seizures. At age two, her parents decided to take her off the medication.

 “For a few years, the seizures faded away,” Nikki explained. “But then, when I was about eight years old, I experienced my first grand mal seizure and I continued having at least one each year if not multiple.”

Nikki’s grand mal seizures typically last around four minutes. During which she experiences convulsions that drain her body and brain of the energy needed to function. After such seizures, she must spend several hours sleeping to try gaining her strength back.

The types and frequency of her seizures have changed over the course of time.  Besides the grand mal and absence seizures, she now also has non-epileptic seizures, which she has at least four times a month.

Nikki, now 33, graduated from Holdingford High School and attended Model College of Hair Design. But she always found that schoolwork was incredibly difficult and she was often seen daydreaming or staring off. While those signs could have indicated that Nikki was uninterested, they were actually signs that she was experiencing multiple absence seizures that she wasn’t aware she was having until she was 20. 

When she was 20, an EEG (electroencephalogram) test showed that Nikki was actually having multiple absence seizures throughout the day. Because they were small, she had no idea they were happening, however, they were deeply affecting her concentration and her ability to learn new information.

“I had to study so hard – two to three times harder than an average person, because of what my brain was going through,” Nikki said. “I have generalized epilepsy, which affects my entire brain, not just a portion of it.”

The same double or triple work efforts needed to be applied to Nikki’s career at Nordstrom. She excelled incredibly with her job, which allowed her to travel and experience great success. Despite that, Nikki could tell her health was deteriorating.

In January 2016, Nikki became very ill, contracting influenza A. During that time, her epilepsy seemed to hit a new peak, sparking grand mal seizures multiple times a month. She believes the change was due to her working. Work was stressful and at certain times of the year overtime hours were needed. 

“I would become so exhausted and drained. I would experience seizures during this time just due to being worn out mentally and physically,” said Nikki. “I started struggling to work and was in and out of the hospital. My husband, Matt, finally suggested I stop working – it was becoming apparent that the physical and mental stress was affecting my epilepsy.”

Nikki stepped away from the career she loved to give her body a chance to improve. Now, Nikki experiences an average of eight or nine seizures each month – had she continued working, they likely would have continued on a daily schedule.

Finding Lacey

After leaving her job, Nikki came across a posting online for Lacey, a King Charles Cavalier. She immediately reached out to the seller to find out more. It was noted that Lacey had been trained as an emotional support dog, but that over time, she naturally began alerting to her owner’s seizures as well, which made her a service dog.

Lacey’s owner was going to be entering hospice care and was only able to take one of her two dogs with her, which was why Lacey was being offered to someone else. Hundreds of people contacted the seller, who was a family friend of the owner. They all pleaded their case as to why they would be the best owner for the soft little dog who had a serious nose for alerting.

“When I shared my story, the seller was like, ‘That’s it, she is yours!’” Nikki said.

Without having met Lacey, Nikki knew she was taking a chance on whether or not the four-legged companion would alert to her seizures.

“I figured that if she didn’t alert me, I would still be left with a really cute dog!” she laughed.

But as it turned out, Lacey was the right partner for Nikki, although it took a little time for her to figure that out.

“When she first alerted to me, I didn’t know what she was doing – she kept licking my hand like crazy, which she had not done at all up to that point,” Nikki said.

Not long after Lacey’s licking, Nikki experienced a seizure. She still did not make the realization that her new companion had picked up on the oncoming event by smelling a change in pheromones. In another instance, Lacey began staring at Nikki, growling and then barking – the actions were out of her normal behavior. Again, Nikki experienced another seizure.

“I finally realized she had been trying to tell me something,” said Nikki.

Since getting three-year-old Lacey this past April, Nikki says her life has been altered for the good, saying, “She has completely changed my life. Now, I have such a sense of security that I did not have before her.”

Nikki explained that with epilepsy, there is always a scared or nervous feeling that accompanies daily life. The fact that a seizure would come without warning has, over the years, caused several falls and injuries.

“I have fallen a lot – the scariest thing is thinking about all the times I hit my head. I would fall whenever I would have a grand mal or non-epileptic seizure either in public or by myself,” she said.

For a long time Nikki accepted living her life that way. That was, until she met Lacey. Now, when Lacey alerts, Nikki knows she must lie down so she is safe for what is to come and she takes medication that can often stop or lessen the seizure’s impact.

“Lacey has become like a security blanket for me – I take her everywhere I can and when I cannot take her, which is rare, it is difficult for both Lacey and I. If she cannot pick up my scent, she barks and goes wild.”

Nikki says that despite Lacey’s small stature, the impact she has made is enormous.

“People often think service dogs need to be big, but they come in all sizes,” she said, looking down at Lacey curled up next to her. “They are absolutely incredible animals and I can say, without a doubt, that I won the lottery when I got her.”

Nikki’s family and friends have also noticed the positive change Lacey has created.

“They can tell [Lacey] has lifted my spirits,” Nikki said. “They don’t have to worry about me getting hurt because they know Lacey will alert me and I know to go lie down.”

A rise in misrepresentation

Recently, service animal misrepresentation has been on the rise, which has prompted changes in law. Since service dog harnesses and other items can be purchased online, the increase in fraudulent service dogs has been seen everywhere from places of business to airline flights.

With that in mind, Nikki says, it is usually pretty easy to spot the real ones.

“Real service dogs, when working, are incredibly focused on their owner,” she said. “Non-service dogs will bark and seem out of control – it is a sign that they have not actually been trained.”

Having distractions like non-service dogs or human interaction can disrupt the real service dog’s ability to do their job in public places.

Businesses are required to permit the presence of a service animal under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Minnesota borrows its definition of “service animal” from the federal law, which states that a “service animal” is defined by the 2010 ADA Title III Regulations as a dog (although in some circumstances, a miniature horse may also qualify) that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.

The tasks must be directly related to the individual’s disability, such as assisting individuals who are blind, alerting individuals who are deaf to the presence of people or sound, or alerting to and assisting an individual during a seizure. Emotional support animals, which may provide psychiatric or emotional benefits but are not trained to perform a specific task, do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.

“There are misunderstandings about service dogs, but I want people to know how important they are to the people they serve,” said Nikki. “You may not be able to see why someone needs their service dog, the signs are not always obvious. But these animals change lives – I know Lacey has changed mine!”