No one is sure why some dogs are able to sense an impending attack but for years they have been trained to alert their owners, providing a vital early warning.
Hetty, a two-year-old golden retriever-Labrador cross, has a 100 per cent success rate in predicting Tony’s regular seizures allowing the 41-year-old to be in a safe place when they begin.
Uniquely Hetty is also a fully-fledged guide dog for Tony who has been registered blind for five years. “She’s a superdog,” says Tony from Tunbridge Wells in Kent, who was diagnosed with epilepsy in her 20s.
Despite taking medication which limits seizures these frightening episodes strike regularly.
In the past she has broken ribs and other bones by collapsing without warning, striking furniture as she fell. In another incident while she was cooking Tony suffered a mini-seizure causing her to lose awareness for a few minutes. Fat in a pan overheated and spat into her eyes contributing to her blindness.
She was given her first seizure dog in 1995. At that time she was suffering 12 major attacks a week and up to 40 minor episodes.
“They can be dangerous,” says Tony, a mother-of-two girls Grace, 11 and Mimi, five.
“I once fell through a glass shower screen. Receiving a warning makes all the difference.”
However her advancing blindness, also caused by a retinal disease, created a new problem.
So two organisations Guide Dogs For The Blind and Support Dogs went into partnership to train the first animal in the UK to have the dual roles.
Hetty began as one of 1,300 dogs a year specially bred to become guiders. About 900 come through the training process and Hetty was chosen to take on the second job because of her excellent temperament, boundless energy, intelligence and loyalty.
Almost 200 support dogs have been trained since 1993.
In addition to her advanced guide-dog training in Sheffield, Hetty spent one day a week learning to become a seizure dog.
It included working with Tony and beginning to recognise advance signs of her seizures which are imperceptible to humans. Typically these dogs appear to be able to provide about 40 minutes warning probably by sensing some physiological change. Some dogs bark but Hetty’s warning is to rest her head on Tony’s leg and nudge her. Additionally if there is a major seizure on the way she will paw Tony’s leg.
“There was an immediate bond between us,” recalls Tony, who is married to Dan, 48, an engineer. “Now she’s never more than a few feet away and we’ve nicknamed her ‘my little shadow’. Having Hetty gives me my independence and the confidence to leave the house.
“Guiding requires great concentration in a dog, helping me avoid cars, bins and everything that gets left on the pavements.
“Then there’s the extra strain of alerting me to a seizure but I can set my watch by how reliable she is.
“When I have a seizure Hetty lies behind me until I recover. They usually last between five and 10 minutes but if you have a warning, the fear is taken away.
“Before I had no way of knowing if they were coming. Now if I’m out shopping I can jump on the bus and get home or at least warn people around me what is about to happen.
“She is phenomenal and with Hetty on duty 24 hours a day I feel safe. She’s a bright dog who is always up for the challenge. Hetty is one of the family.” The dog is also able to unload a washing machine and pick up small fallen objects which Tony is unable to see.
The collaboration between the two charities is likely to open the way for more dogs being trained to take on dual roles to help people with several disabilities. Dogs are already trained to help people who are both deaf and blind.
Although some breeds aren’t suitable, Labradors and golden retrievers do especially well. However becoming a successful guider is more about the personality of the animal.
It was important to ensure that giving the dog another role did not compromise the guiding ability says Lee Stanway of Guide Dogs For The Blind who arranged Hetty’s training.
“We started with a group of eight dogs and ended up with two including Hetty,” he says.
“We think only about five to 10 per cent of the dogs we breed might be capable of doing both jobs.
“It’s not easy and we are looking for dogs who are gregarious, adaptable and confident.
“Hetty ticked all the boxes. We did have a few doubts but it was fantastic to see everything work out.”
Source: For more information about the work of the two organisations involved in Hetty’s training visit www.guidedogs.org.uk and www.support-dogs.org.uk