Sheltie Nation

Meet Holly, the hero

Girl saved by her rescue pup
A Sheltie runt with little chance to live had an amazing gift

By Lisa Rosetta, The Salt Lake Tribune

MAGNA – It was Shanna Wilkinson’s 13th birthday and for her gift, she got to choose a Shetland sheepdog puppy to raise and train for American Kennel Club competition.

To her mother’s dismay, Shanna picked a runt, a sickly pup the veterinarian said wouldn’t survive.  But Shanna took her anyway, coddling and bottle feeding the little Sheltie named Holly until she was well enough to eat on her own.

Shanna had saved the pup’s life. It was a favor that Holly would return four years later, when Shanna was diagnosed with late-onset juvenile epilepsy – and Holly began predicting her seizures.

For her skill, Holly is one of only six service dogs in the country being recognized by the AKC in Boise today with a Canine Excellence Award.

In 2004, Shanna began collapsing and experiencing grand mal seizures – up to nine a day – that leave her feeling tired, sore, and “like I’ve been hit by a bus,” she said.

Just before the seizures occur, Holly acts out, barking, whining, pawing and staring intently at Shanna.

“At first, we didn’t know what she was trying to tell us because we didn’t know what was going on,” said Cynthia Wilkinson, Shanna’s mother. “But then we started putting it together that she’d start this strange behavior and then Shanna would have a seizure.”

Cynthia timed it. Between five and 10 minutes before Shanna has a seizure, Holly reliably alerts. The 15-inch-tall Sheltie then takes her place alongside Shanna during her short seizures.

“Even when Holly has gotten kicked [by Shanna], she won’t leave,” Cynthia said. “She wants to be right there. I’ve tried to physically pick her up and move her and she comes right back.”

Having a heads-up about her impending seizures allows Shanna to avoid potential dangers, such as the sharp edges of a coffee table, and lie down so she does not fall and hurt herself – an advantage, she said, that has changed her life.

“I feel comfortable to go out in public and that I’ll have an opportunity to go away from everyone and go lay down when Holly alerts me,” said Shanna, now 20. “[Holly] has really given me back my independence.”

When she was first diagnosed, Shanna said she stopped going out with friends and doing “normal teenage activities.” Her fear of when and where her seizures may strike kept her at home.

“But now, I can go out with my friends and they feel confident and OK to be with me because Holly is there,” she said.

For reasons researchers haven’t been able to explain – or absolutely prove – a small number of dogs such as Holly appear to be able to alert humans to impending seizures.

Some service dog providers believe patients unknowingly provide a behavioral cue, such as minute gestures or postures, or perhaps a smell or a sound, according to an article published in the European journal Seizure. Still others believe it could be a combination of all of these things.

“People always want to say, ‘Well, how do they [dogs] know?’ I don’t know how [Holly] knows, other than maybe [Shanna's] heart rate changes,” Cynthia said. “Something in her body must change.”

Cynthia, a dog breeder and trainer, said a dog’s ability to predict seizures is innate – it can’t be taught. This is contrary to seizure response dogs, which can be trained to assist a patient during and after a seizure.

Once the Wilkinsons understood Holly’s behavior, they talked to Shanna’s doctor about the possibility of making Holly a full-time service dog. Before they could enroll the Sheltie in service dog training, they needed a physician’s note.

“[The doctor] was really supportive,” Cynthia said. “He thought it was a great idea.”

Holly and Shanna, partners in AKC agility and herding competitions, had to learn how to work together as a service dog team.

Now the Sheltie sports a blue service dog vest, rebuffing strangers who approach her offering affection. In public places, such as restaurants, she’s nearly inconspicuous.

Because Holly’s fluffy, multicolored coat often obscures her vest, and because most people identify Labradors or German shepherds as working dogs, people don’t always immediately recognize Holly as a service dog, Cynthia said.

But the Sheltie ensures Shanna’s safety, and Cynthia’s peace of mind. “It gives me a lot of security to know Holly can handle it,” Cynthia said.

Today, Holly will be recognized for her work by an AKC club in Boise and again in December in Long Beach, Calif. Shanna will accept a silver medal and a $1,000 check in honor of her 7-year-old dog.

“I really do owe her my life,” said Shanna, who now is working on getting her associate’s degree from Salt Lake Community College. Holly, of course, is in the classroom with her every day.

Reflecting on that day Shanna warmed up to the feeble pup, Cynthia smiles. “Sometimes, things just turn out exactly like they’re supposed to,” she said.

The entire article can be read here.

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