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The dogs that saved her life

Marty Harris has a heart condition that can cause her to pass out at any time. Driving, traveling, and doing any thing on her own were out of the question...until she met Adele.
Marty Harris has a heart condition that can cause her to pass out at any time. Driving, traveling, and doing any thing on her own were out of the question...until she met Adele.

Before Adele, Marty Harris spent her life falling.

She was a child who couldn’t run, who couldn’t hike without passing out and her father carrying her. It would be years before she learned that she had a chronic fainting disorder caused by an irregular heartbeat.

Despite decades of misdiagnoses, Harris lived her life, painting, traveling, and fainting.

The Boston artist, now 46, remembers falling down the stairs at her son’s preschool and waking up on a stretcher surrounded by crying children. The incident prompted her to search for a solution. In 2006, Harris found Adele. The black labrador retriever became her first service dog.


Adele was also one of the world’s first cardiac-alert dogs.

“Freedom,” Harris said, summing up how her life changed in one word. “Confidence to go out and do things without being scared. Make me braver to try things I might not have tried before.”

Through an organization called Canine Partners for Life in Pennsylvania, Harris tested four seizure-alert dogs to see if any of them were sensitive enough to pick up on her heart condition.

“I had to go up and down this little hill, which to me was Mount Everest,” Harris said. “Everything went really smoothly with three of the dogs, but then the fourth dog I went up the hill and it laid across my feet and wouldn’t get up. I yelled back to the trainers, ‘I think this one’s broken.’”

In fact, from the moment they met, Adele could sense Harris’s heartbeat. She let her owner know if Harris needed to stop, sit, or even lie down on the floor. If she jumped up, Harris knew she needed to lie down and Adele would lie on top of her.

Adele’s skills don’t only apply to Harris.

When they’re out in public, the dog has alerted strangers to seizures before they’ve started.


“The alerting is an instinct — dogs either have it or they don’t,” Harris said. “You can’t teach it. It’s one that doesn’t go away. How they’re able to alert is still a bit of a mystery.”

The pair’s story is captured in a documentary to be released Tuesday as a video-on-demand called, “Adele and Everything After.” The film shows the emotional journey of what happened when the service dog retired after nine years. Over the past year, Harris has traveled around the United States and Canada with the film’s director, Melissa Dowler. The documentary was shown at 15 film festivals. It will be screened at the Somerville Theatre on Monday, Jan. 29.

“This is a love story,” Dowler said. “It’s a story about an unconditional love between two beings and the power that Adele loving Marty and really seeing her and really accepting her unlocked her independence and her freedom.”

Today, Harris and her husband, Jeff, share their apartment in the Leather District with Adele and Harris’s new service dog, a yellow labrador retriever named Hector. Both dogs help Harris with daily chores such as the recycling, laundry, and other needs around the house.

“My intention was never really to make it a training video about service dogs,” Harris said. “My biggest thing was, ‘don’t give up.’ People tell you no all your life. At some point you just have to say, ‘well, they don’t know everything.’ Sometimes you have to explore to find what it is that you need.”


At 13, Adele’s muzzle is covered with gray whiskers. Harris said there’s one for every alert.

The dog no longer hears very well and her vision is starting to go. She has a bad hip but she’s happy. She does get restless when Harris isn’t around, which can get the dog into a bit of trouble.

“A retired service dog, one of the hazards of it is they know how to turn lights on and off and open and close doors and retrieve things out of the refrigerator for you,” Harris said. “And if you’re not around, they start doing all those service skills trying to figure out what it is that will bring you back into the house.”

Though she’s no longer a working service dog, Adele remains by Harris’s side and sometimes helps Hector do the job she did for nearly a decade.

“They’ll both alert me at the same time or they’ll take turns,” Harris said. “They seem to have their own language between the two of them.”

Inside South Station on Wednesday, Adele and Hector circled Harris’s knees.

The black lab nuzzled the back of her leg. The yellow lab stopped by her side.

“When people are watching the movie, they go ‘aww, isn’t that cute,’” Harris said. “When actually they’re saving my life at that moment.”

“Adele and Everything After” screens Monday, Jan. 29, at 7:30 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre.

Cristela Guerra can be reached at cristela.guerra@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @CristelaGuerra.