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Texas middle-school student Rachel Benke was lucky enough this year to have her seventh-grade yearbook photo appear right next to that of her best friend — a Labrador-Golden Retriever mix named Taxi. An epilepsy service dog who can predict the onset of seizures, Taxi has been by Benke’s side for four years, and her mom thought it only right that he be allowed to remain there in the yearbook, too.
“Last year when their yearbooks came out, I said, ‘Hey, where's Taxi’s picture?' But I was kind of joking," Rachel’s mom, Teresa Benke, tells Yahoo Shine. This year, Teresa — who attends picture day every year with her daughter because Rachel’s condition makes it difficult for her to make eye contact and smile for the camera — really made it happen. “After Rachel’s picture, I said, ‘OK, Taxi’s turn!’” she says. And lo and behold, the photographer went for it, taking a quick and handsome snap of the dog.
The subsequent attention has been a welcome distraction for Rachel, who had a portion of her brain removed at age 6 to quell the hundreds of seizures she was having on a daily basis.
Because of those first few years of so many seizures, 14-year-old Rachel is developmentally more of a 6- or 7-year-old, her mom explains. And while she can sometimes go months without a seizure, she can also suffer from up to several in one week. It’s why Taxi — who flunked out of seeing-eye-dog training because of a “cat-distraction problem,” Teresa says, only to be retrained as an epilepsy service dog — has been such a godsend.
Epilepsy-service dogs can work in various ways, either by alerting people when a seizure is about to occur, or by assisting during and after a seizure, by helping to protect the person from injury, according to the Epilepsy Foundation. And though the Foundation’s stance on seizure predicting is that much more research is needed before people can truly understand or even count on the innate skill, Taxi, who has been Rachel’s protector since she was 9, appears able to do it all. That was just the type of service dog her parents had hoped to find ever since learning about their existence many years ago on the news program “20/20.”
“I can’t tell you how many times she’s just dropped on the pavement,” Benke says through tears. “She’s been bruised up her whole life. But you’ve also got to let her live. So when we got Taxi, it was just such a relief.”
One day when Rachel was swimming in a pool, her mom explains, Taxi jumped in and started splashing; Teresa was able to get her daughter out of the water just minutes before the onset of a grand mal seizure. Another time, while Rachel was waiting for her turn on a trampoline at a birthday party, Taxi stood on his hind legs and placed his paws on her shoulders, stopping her just moments before another seizure.
It’s been similar to the situation of another recent headline-making student-dog combo: Jessica Hayes, of Lubbock, Texas, whose service dog, Shawne, joined her in donning a cap and gown and striding across the stage for her Roosevelt High School graduation recently. The yellow Lab, who senses Hayes’s oft-violent seizures 10 to 15 minutes before they occur, was honored at the ceremony with a special treat and a certificate for “outstanding service, loyalty and companionship” to Hayes.
For Rachel, though, having Taxi by her side in school in San Antonio's Northside Independent School District has not always been smooth sailing. Her mom says Rachel's elementary-school principal complained frequently about the dog being a distraction, leading the Benkes to file a grievance against the school. It’s why Rachel’s entrance into middle school has been such a welcome relief, Teresa notes, and why the side-by-side yearbook photos have been such a particularly joyous end-of-school-year sendoff.
“It’s been so much fun watching her,” Benke says of her daughter, who’s been tickled to see their story picked up from as far away as Japan. “She’s eating it up, it’s so cute.”