St. John's resident Lesleigh Hiscock has much more than a pet in her Labrador Retriever, Ashton. After being diagnosed with epilepsy, Lesleigh applied to the Lion's Foundation Dog Guides program for a "seizure response dog," a dog trained to bark and attract attention while its owner is experiencing a seizure. Soon after Ashton came to live with Lesleigh, however, something incredible happened. Ashton displayed the uncanny ability to predict Lesleigh's seizures before they happen. Here is some of Downhome's conversation with Lesleigh and her mother, Gayle Hiscock, about this amazing dog. Check out the February 2009 issue of Downhome magazine for more about this phenomenon.
DH: How did your sickness start?
Lesleigh: I'm 41 and it started about 6 or 7 years ago...it really just kind of hit me out of the blue. I'd actually been living in Toronto working as a chef; I'd gone to culinary school and all kinds of stuff and it started happening and I had to come back home...I (found out about service dogs from) a program on the Discovery channel...The big issue for me was that I didnít get any warning prior to my seizures. I'm six feet tall, so itís a really long way to go, and I was getting all of these horrible injuries.
DH: Tell me about some of the injuries you received?
Lesleigh: All kinds of cuts and broken bones. I broke my jaw getting my mail one day...it was very difficult to be independent or have any sort of life...there is a hole in the wall of my apartment from me going back and hitting my head against it, and all of these other little dents and holes. Paramedics knew me by name. I was in and out of emergency and constantly had bruises on my face and everywhere on my body.
DH: Tell me about the training Ashton received.
Lesleigh: They try to train the dogs in the sense that when the dogs see their owner having a seizure the dog will sit beside them and bark to alert whomever may be around and that will draw attention and whomever will call an ambulance and that type of thing.
DH: How did Ashton evolve from a seizure "response" dog into a seizure "alert" dog?
Lesleigh: It was a very short period of time. He'd just start barking incessantly for no reason...and I'd notice that behaviour and then I'd have a seizure. So it was more me being smart enough to pay attention to him. He doesn't get (all of the seizures), but he gets most of them. I've not had an injury that's required emergency room care since I had him.
DH: How much warning can Ashton give you prior to a seizure?
Lesleigh: He barks, I lie down...sometimes I don't get down quickly enough and I'll give myself a good smack. When he knows that I'm about to have a seizure the barking is a little different.
DH: Describe how having Ashton has changed your life.
Lesleigh: I have a life...I can get my own mail, I can go to the bathroom (alone). It's the simplest things. Ashton's my shadow. When I was dealing with all of this initially there was so much to battle with, not just physically, but emotionally, mentally. (Epilepsy) was a monster in my life and I felt so vulnerable and completely alone. Mom and I have a very close relationship, (but I was) alone in the sense that nobody could understand. And now having Ashton, I wake up every morning and thereís this huge smile looking down at me and there's this joyful creature. It's just raw and pure. I get goose bumps just from what that brings me.
DH: Have you ever noticed any signs or subtle hints that Lesleigh is about to have a seizure?
Gayle: No. That's why I'm a bundle of nerves whenever we go out...there is absolutely no warning...it's almost like her body is spiraled or hurled backwards so if she's slightly behind you, you don't have time to grab her arm or anything...so no she's not smelling anything, she's not seeing stars or even her behaviour doesn't change. It's just she's there one minute and the next minute she's on the floor. And that's where Ashton comes in as such a miracle. Some people who have seizures, they have time to sit down and get to a safe space...Before we had him, ambulances all the time, now that we've got him I think (Lesleigh's needed an ambulance) once or twice. He has truly been amazing and a blessing, not only to Lesleigh, but to me because I have peace of mind.
Lesleigh: That's one of the biggest blessings. I have more joy in my heart knowing that Mom has a little bit of comfort...The only thing that I have any sadness about when it comes to Ashton is that my dad never got to meet him. He died of cancer in 2006. He was an incredible man and he was so frustrated with this whole thing with my health...There was one time I went in to visit Dad when he was at the Miller Centre and I had a seizure while I was in visiting him. I was told that when I fell my father reached over and caught my head from hitting on the floor. There he was, so sick, and he did that. I kind of feel like I have Dad with me keeping me from hitting the floor all the time now.
DH: You must have a special relationship with Ashton.
Lesleigh: I have an incredible bond with this animal and there's a little piece of me that knows that one day he's going to go hang out with Dad and meet Dad and do stuff with Dad and wait for Mom and I to get up there...I try to look at it in that way so it brings me a little bit of happiness...It's going to be hard when that day comes but having such an incredible bond with this animal, I've never experienced anything like it. He's not a pet. He's a little soul mate.