A guardian angel

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27 March 2013
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About 150 children and 250 adults of working age are registered annually as blind or partially sighted as a result of these conditions. Toni has nominal light and dark perception, and her condition is worsening. Hetty has made it possible for Toni to re-engage with horses. Before her blindness and epilepsy, horses were a large part of Toni's life. She previously worked in a racing yard and trained young horses for other riders.

She gave up riding for about 10 years, but missed it terribly, especially so when her oldest daughter started having lessons. The stables wouldn't let anyone with active epilepsy ride, but once Toni had a seizure alert dog new doors opened and her hobby was accessible to her once more. "Getting back into horses gave me a real zest for life," Toni said. "The horse I ride most, Apple, is lively but kind and really good fun. We jump, hack out, and do dressage. I have a real empathy with her and have discovered a whole new dimension to my riding - I'm aware so much more intensely of her responses."

blind dog pictureOn the lookout

Hetty is Toni's fourth seizure alert dog and the first dog who combines seizure alert detection with guiding. Ajay, her previous alert dog, is retired but still lives with the family alongside her daughter's autism dog, Merlin. Two-year-old Hetty was bred and trained by the charity Guide Dogs. She was then specially selected by Sheffield charity Support Dogs to learn how to identify the onset of epileptic seizures. "Hetty is a phenomenal dog," Toni continued. "I could never have imagined how effective she could be. Not only does she help guide me but she's always on watch for signs of a seizure.

"To alert me, she will come to a halt and sit, but at an off set angle, not straight like she normally does. If it is a major seizure, she will warn me by putting her chin on my knee and then paw at me - she gives me exactly 42 minutes' warning. If it is a minor one, she will just head rest 15 >minutes beforehand. This gives me time to get to a place of safety." Thanks to Hetty's support, Toni has become a lot less stressed about her epilepsy and, as a result, the number of seizures have reduced.

When it comes to watching out for Toni during her horse riding exploits, Hetty sits ringside keeping vigilant throughout. If Toni decides to take a hack through the countryside, she takes a companion who gives direct instructions about any obstacles or obstructions they might meet along the way. It's not all work for Hetty though. Toni is committed to giving Hetty as much joy in life as she receives from her and they take long walks together and play too. "I call Hetty my ‘pocket rocket' as she is always up for anything," said Toni. "She's my constant companion and a great friend. She's made huge difference to my life."

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Chief executive of Guide Dogs, Richard Leaman, said: "Dual dogs like Hetty transform the lives of people living with sight loss and other disabilities. We are delighted that Hetty has and will continue to help Toni live independently for many years to come."

A vital cornerstone

Independence and the need to make a difference are vital to Toni. She is a voluntary Braille teacher to newly blind adults and produces the regular newsletter for Support Dogs, a UK charity dedicated to improving the quality of life for people with epilepsy and physical disabilities, and children with autism, by training dogs to act as efficient and safe assistants. Toni said: "Dogs are a vital cornerstone of my life and their giving spirit is a lesson to all of us. I treasure my incredible bond with Hetty and love and respect her beyond measure."

For information about sponsoring dogs, call Guide Dogs on 0118 983 5555. For information about Support Dogs, call 0114 261 7800 or email [email protected]