Amy Williams has a rare form of epilepsy, which often left her feeling like she had to rely on others. She explains how her support dog, Stanley, has helped her gain confidence and independence, and how he's changing her life day by day.
'As a child I had chickenpox encephalitis [a rare condition where the chicken pox virus spreads to the brain]. It's a serious illness and can be fatal. Thankfully I survived, but it left me with startle epilepsy - a condition that is exactly what it sounds like: when I'm surprised by a loud noise or something unexpected happens, I can have an epileptic seizure. This can happen two or three times a day and sometimes at night. Because it's so unpredictable, I know my family were always worried about my safety and I needed someone by my side at all times. In fact, it got to the point where I was even scared to sleep in my own bed in case I had a seizure and choked or seriously injured myself. I also started suffering from anxiety and felt very nervous - as though I was in a bubble and had no friends. At its worst it left me feeling scared to leave the house.
'This meant I was very reliant on my carer and family, and I started feeling desperate to find a way to increase my independence - and that's where Stanley, my super support dog, comes in.
'Support dogs can come from all walks of life and are often rescue dogs. I've been told that Stan was originally bred to be a Guide Dog but that his nature was better suited to this sort of job, where he can be sociable with other people even when he's out working with me. He loves cuddles from strangers - which could potentially cause a problem if he was assisting someone who is blind! Instead, Support Dogs UK assessed him, found he had the right temperament to be a seizure response dog, and took him through their almost year-long training process. We then spent three weeks working together at the Support Dogs training centre in Sheffield, where I learnt the right commands and alerts to give Stanley. He was also trained to work with my wheelchair and help prevent my specific type of seizures. For example, by standing up and looking at the door he'll let me know that someone is approaching and can help me to ward off a seizure. If I do have one, Stanley is also trained to pull an alarm to call my parents or carer for help. He's 100% reliable and has never missed an episode.'
A typical day for Stanley and me starts when my carer, Rachel, wakes us both. Stan will then help me get out of my pyjamas by gently gripping the fabric between his teeth and pulling them off. We'll have breakfast together and go for a walk, where Stanley loves to run free for a bit. On days where I have activities, such as horseriding, he'll accompany me and he'll also come along to look after me on shopping trips. Most days we brush up on some of the training we learnt through Support Dogs UK to help keep us up to date on the different commands.
'Stanley actually helps me in more ways than I can describe; he picks things up for me when I drop them, opens drawers and doors, and fetches my phone. Thanks to him I feel safer, I'm more confident and feel much more able to get out of the house.
'This was especially true when we went on holiday to Weston-super-Mare recently. One of my dreams has always been to walk for a little way on the beach without help. Stan gave me the confidence to get up out of my wheelchair on a windy day and feel the sand beneath my toes. He was also the reason I felt confident enough to make a speech in front of the crowd at our Support Dogs UK graduation ceremony. I can't imagine life without Stanley - he's not just a life changer, but potentially a life saver too.'
To find out more about the fantastic work Support Dogs UK does, or to volunteer your time or donate to the cause, visit supportdogs.org.uk