As Support Dogs celebrates its 30th anniversary, long-term client Ann, who has epilepsy, looks back over some memorable moments with her three life-saving seizure alert dogs – and at what life was like before her first support dog.

After Ann Watson was diagnosed with epilepsy in her 20’s she was housebound for three years. She was having more than 20 seizures a day and was too afraid to go outside, even into her own garden.

As a result, she had no contact with anyone outside of her immediate family. “It was an incredibly difficult and isolating experience,” she recalls.

At that time Ann had three children in their early teens, who acted as her carers, and would bring her round from a seizure using a cold towel. “They were very frightened and unsure of what was going on, but there was no other help available,” says Ann.

“If I had a really bad day my husband would take time off to care for me, which had an impact on his work. As a result, we all suffered from stress and anxiety.”

It was husband Peter who saw a TV programme about assistance dogs and suggested applying to Support Dogs for a seizure alert dog. Support Dogs is the only charity in the UK that trains seizure alert dogs to provide a 100 per cent warning of an oncoming epileptic seizure, giving clients time to get to a safe place to have their seizure.

The result was a life-transforming partnership with her first support dog, border collie Shadow, originally from a rescue centre.

“When I first got a dog, it gave me such a taste of freedom,” says Ann. “It was brilliant - I could go shopping, visit friends, instead of them coming to me; it opened up my life and I no longer felt isolated or trapped. I would not be here without Shadow – he saved me so many times from falling down the stairs.”

Shadow gave her back her independence and just as importantly, enabled her teenage children to have their own lives too and start taking part in activities outside the family home.

“My youngest son had been preparing to stay at home permanently and become my full-time carer,” says Ann. “But after I got Shadow, it was no longer necessary, and he was able to move out and pursue his own career and family.

“It was fantastic and gave me peace of mind. Peter and the kids knew that nothing like what happened before would happen again.”

At that time Ann and her family were living in Cumbernauld in Scotland. “It was a small town, and all the shopkeepers knew Shadow, and they would let me go into the back of their shops and have the seizure, then call a taxi to take me home.”

She and Peter eventually moved down to South Yorkshire to be closer to Support Dogs’ training centre, and when Shadow retired, black Lab Victor took over. Ann and Victor shared a particularly close bond.  “Victor was an overgrown baby, full of fun, but he always gave me a 100 per cent reliable alert,” says Ann. “He alerted me on my first day of meeting him, and he was always a special boy because of that.”

When he retired, Ann had to give him up, which was a massive wrench. However, he went to live with Support Dogs’ instructor Tacey Moore who kept Ann updated about him and sent her photos until he died in January this year at the grand old age of 15.

Ask Ann about Barney, her current seizure alert dog, another black Lab, who gives her a 21-minute alert, and her face lights up. At the age of 63, Ann’s physical and mental health is not good, but Barney is the light of her life. Ann’s seizures have reduced, but because her mobility is poor, so she can no longer take Barney to the park for regular exercise, relying largely on husband Peter.

“When Barney is sitting with me on the sofa, just him being there is such a comfort,” she says. “I don’t know how I would be without him.”

Ann’s relationship with Support Dogs goes back many years now and she is full of praise for each and every trainer and instructor she has worked with. “I can’t say enough about them – they are all brilliant. Support Dogs has always been very good to me. I didn’t know there was anything like this to help me back then, but ever since that first contact, I have never looked back.”

All three of her seizure alert dogs had very different personalities and alerted her in different ways – Barney gives her a hard stare, Victor would paw her and Shadow would bark for 20 minutes.

Ann’s ‘boys’ have made her life immeasurably better. She adds: “If it weren’t for my three dogs, I would be dead by now – they have literally saved my life on many occasions. I know for a fact I would not be here if I didn’t have them. I am so grateful to Support Dogs for all their help and support over so many years.”

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