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Seizure response-trained canine companion helps handler have independence

National fundraiser Pet Valu Walk for Dog Guides happens May 26 across B.C.
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When someone has multiple seizures every day, privacy isn’t a luxury they’re really afforded.

Before Surrey’s Sherry-Lynne MacWilliams received a dog trained to help with her seizures, she was unable to be alone, unmonitored by nearby family members, because she has epilepsy-related seizures often.

“There was somebody always checking up on me or with me, all the time,” she said.

Even when going to have a bath, she would have to leave the door ajar a little, just in case anything happened.

Then she and her family were able to get Venta, a Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guide trained in seizure response – despite a COVID-19 pandemic-related delay.

In addition to training for people who are blind or visually impaired, dog guides are specially trained to help meet the needs of people with hearing, medical and physical disabilities, epilepsy, autism and diabetes, and for professional agencies assisting people in traumatic situations.

“Before, I didn’t have any independence at all. You feel … almost like you’re not quite grown up,” MacWilliams said, noting that Venta gives her more independence. “Now, if I go for a bath, Venta will come in with me and lie on the mat.”

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She can close the door if she wishes, as Venta will alert her family with barking if she sees her having a seizure, or senses one about to happen.

When Venta detects the chemical change that occurs approximately 15 minutes before her guardian has a seizure, she alerts MacWilliams to sit down in a safe place and goes and gets her medicine, cellphone or a family member.

People with epilepsy experience seizures in different ways, MacWilliams noted, and while she may have several small seizures in a day, they often won’t affect her ability to function, or not very much.

“I might trip or pause in a sentence, but I’m still functioning,” she explained. “It’s when seizures get to be over 10 seconds and in groups – clusters – that (Venta) tends to notice things are not right. Clusters … can lead to much worse seizures, and she can tell when it’s a large seizure or clusters … when I’m becoming less capable of doing things or have a chance of losing consciousness.”

Even though MacWilliams can usually sense some seizure warning signs herself, it still surprises her how quickly Venta will know – even if MacWilliams herself doesn’t feel off in any way.

She remembered being at the family cabin last year, swimming in water that was quite deep. Venta, who was standing on the shore 15 feet away, started barking madly. When Sherry-Lynne didn’t swim back to shore, Venta – who hates water – dove in and started dragging her to the dock. Minutes after Sherry-Lynne had climbed out of the water, she had a massive seizure.

Since Venta has joined the family, MacWilliams and her husband and adult children have been able to relax, knowing she’ll get the help she needs when she needs it, she noted.

“Venta is very calm and so sweet. She’s fun and inquisitive, too!” MacWilliams said.

While she still doesn’t venture too far from home too often, having Venta means that MacWilliams can now occasionally go to a nearby mall or maybe a walk around the block every now and then, as long as Venta is with her. The smart canine companion is trained to fetch MacWilliams’ phone, her medication – if she is suffering a seizure – or help from a nearby person if needed.

It costs $35,000 to breed, train and place Dog Guides, which is why there is a walk – the Pet Valu Walk for Dog Guides – taking place across B.C. on May 26 in numerous locations including South Delta, Victoria, Sidney, Nelson, Nanaimo, Ladysmith, Vancouver, Port Coquitlam, Alberni and Duncan, all in support of providing Dog Guides at no cost to their guardians.

When potential Dog Guides dogs are born, they’re placed with foster families for initial, basic training while they grow. When they’re old enough to meet potential handlers/guardians they might be a good match with, they then train for another several weeks with that person.

MacWilliams said there are several great reasons for people to support Dog Guides.

“It is a tremendous charity, and it makes such a difference in peoples’ lives,” MacWilliams said.

“It’s life-saving, too.”

Visit walkfordogguides.com for more information.



Tricia Weel

About the Author: Tricia Weel

I’ve worked as a journalist in community newspapers from White Rock to Parksville and Qualicum Beach, to Abbotsford and Surrey.
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