Nikki Preston

Nikki Preston is a Herald reporter based in Hamilton.

Pups to rescue for epilepsy

Unique dog breed really is man's best friend for sufferers of severe seizures.

Retrodoodle puppies Ted (top) and Chester are being trained to provide help to epilepsy sufferers. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Retrodoodle puppies Ted (top) and Chester are being trained to provide help to epilepsy sufferers. Photo / Sarah Ivey

There are dogs that see for the blind and those that hear for the deaf - but for the first time in New Zealand young pups are being trained to assist people with severe epilepsy.

Three retrodoodle puppies, labradoodle crossed with golden retriever, are being taught to help epilepsy sufferers when they have a seizure and, depending on the person's needs, will sit by the person and stay with them if they have an episode, take a telephone to the person so they can call for help or fetch their medication.

New Zealand Epilepsy Assist Trust founder Andrea Hawkless said although the dogs could not be trained to sense when their owner was going to have a seizure, most of them picked it up innately.

They also reacted to seizures in different ways with some dogs barking, while another just sat and stared at its companion to warn them that one was coming.

Mrs Hawkless said the dogs were fulltime companions and had changed their owners' lives, enabling many of them to become more independent and re-enter the workforce.

"As they [the dogs] bond they seem to do a lot of things. We had one that carried a girl off the middle of the road when she had a seizure. Another one, they were having a BBQ and the client fell on to it and the dog went and got help. It is amazing."

Mrs Hawkless said the current project would not have been possible without the generosity of her Orakei hairdresser, Noel Glamuzina, who donated the three retrodoodles, which usually sold for around $1000 each. Mr Glamuzina said retrodoodles were a great breed and enjoyed having company.

Three people are on the waiting list for an assist dog with the youngest a 17-year-old girl. There was often a long wait as the dogs typically took between one and two years to train. The trust has 14 dogs working as companions to people with severe epilepsy who cannot be helped with medication.

Sufferer: Dog will be boost

At 20 years old Stephanie Thurlow has watched her three siblings leave home, but her epilepsy is standing in the way of the independence she also craves.

Stephanie Thurlow. Photo / Greg Bowker
Stephanie Thurlow. Photo / Greg Bowker

The young Browns Bay woman has had her name on a waiting list for an epilepsy assist dog since last year as she sees it as the answer to being able to go flatting.

Miss Thurlow, who volunteers as a clothes sorter at the Salvation Army Family Shop in Browns Bay, said a companion dog would also give her and her parents more confidence.

"I go to this youth group and catch the bus. But instead of looking up I look at the ground. I'm not shy, I just don't feel comfortable out there by myself.

"I want independence but I don't feel comfortable without someone else. So it would give me independence knowing I do have something with me because I'm always a bit afraid I'm going to have a seizure," she said.

Miss Thurlow was diagnosed with epilepsy at the age of 4 and would have a seizure once a week in a good week to three times a night every night in a bad week.

While she tried not to let her illness get in the way, it did make life harder as she was unable to get a driver's licence and had trouble getting full-time employment.

However, she believes having an assist dog will give her more confidence to move out of home, go shopping and even catch public transport.

- NZ Herald

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