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How having my Assistance dog, Lexi, changed my life around.

Posted Mon 5th Feb 2018 at 08:00
by Charlotte Graham

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I’m Charlotte, a 19-year old music student living with Tourette’s Syndrome.

On the 28th of October 2014, just two weeks after I turned 16, I had a sudden onset of severe motor and vocal tics. Although I’ve had small tics from a young age, there was nothing that had triggered my tics to become so severe so suddenly.

My tics were dangerous and impulsive, I was hurting myself and getting into dangerous situations. I’d hit myself, try and hurt myself with sharp objects or touch hot things, throw myself backwards or down stairs, running tics that would cause me to bolt or run out into oncoming traffic, and have tic fits that would leave me on the floor unable to communicate sometimes for hours at a time.

I completely lost my confidence and independence and I had to have an adult with me all the time to keep me safe.

It took months to get a diagnosis of Tourette’s and anxiety. The doctors were clueless as to what had triggered the onset, and how they could treat my condition, but said medication was the only option.

I had been reluctant to try medication as I had seen friends with TS suffering with severe side effects from the medications they were given. I’d spend hours reading through side effects of medications used to treat Tourette’s and was terrified at the thought of trying even the milder drugs.

I was put on Clonidine, a medication that treats high blood pressure, ADHD, anxiety disorders and tic disorders.

Although this medication helps some people, for me, the Clonidine was unsuccessful in treating my tics, and I was completely zombified when I was on it. In fact, I can’t remember much during the time I was on it – my last year of high school is a blur.

I knew I couldn’t live life the way I was – tired, unable to concentrate, and not able to practice music.

Music was my only outlet. When I’m studying music, either playing, composing, or just listening to music, my tics disappear. I’d practice my instruments for hours and hours every day to get a break from the constant ticcing, but the Clonidine made it difficult.

I began searching for alternative treatments. I didn’t care if the tics stayed, I suppose ticcing feels natural to me as it’s something I’ve always done, albeit mildly, for most of my life - I just wanted something that would lessen my anxiety, and I wanted my independence back.

I came across people in America who use service dogs to assist them with their tics. I’ve loved animals from a young age and found that being around animals had a calming effect on my tics.

I was eager to learn more so got in touch through social media with a few of the people I’d found using Tourette’s service dogs.

The people I spoke to told me all about their dogs, how they had become finely tuned in to their tics and knew before they were going to have a tic fit. The dogs could also interrupt tics, assist with mobility and picking up objects their handlers had dropped. They could even find help if their handler was having a tic fit.

In the UK, service dogs are called ‘assistance dogs’. There are 8 charities in the UK under the umbrella organisation ‘ADUK’ that provide assistance dogs for disabled people. Some of these charities include Guide Dogs for the Blind, Hearing Dogs, and Dogs for Good. There are other non-ADUK charities that provide assistance dogs, and some people choose to owner train.

Assistance dogs have public access rights which mean they can go everywhere with their disabled owner where pet dogs are usually not allowed. They perform tasks to mitigate their owner’s disability.

I contacted the ADUK charities that train mobility and medical alert assistance dogs, however they told me that dogs cannot be trained to assist people with Tourette’s.

I was determined to find a way to get an assistance dog to help me and found a company in Ireland who claimed they were able to train a dog for me, but it would cost £6,500. We began fundraising and quickly raised enough money to get an assistance dog.

In June 2015, after I had finished my GCSEs, the company brought Lexi, an eleven-week-old Golden Retriever over from Ireland.

Lexi would stay with me for a year to bond with me and learn her basic commands before returning to Ireland for 8 weeks of intensive training to learn tasks that would make her an assistance dog.

I hadn’t had Lexi for very long, but my family and I had already started to notice the difference Lexi was making to all of our lives. Being with Lexi completely stopped my impulsive tics, meaning I could walk down the road without the fear of stepping out in front of a car. I’d been having tic fits every day before I got Lexi, but they too reduced. I came off the Clonidine, and finally things were starting to look a lot more positive.

Unfortunately, the company Lexi had come from closed down a few months after we got Lexi, however that still didn’t stop me from training her to be an assistance dog.

I read up on the laws on assistance dogs in the UK and found that it is legal to owner train assistance dogs and had enough money to continue Lexi’s training with the help of a local dog trainer.

It’s taken nearly 3 years to train Lexi to be my assistance dog, but it’s been worth it. Lexi goes almost everywhere with me, to the shops, on trains and buses, even to college.

She’s given me back my independence by keeping me safe when I’m out. She helps me to cross the road safely by stopping and waiting until there are no cars and crossing on my command, she creates a barrier between myself and the road and swaps sides so she’s always on the outside.

She can pick things up that I drop and helps me to get undressed which my tics make difficult.

She helps me to get up and down stairs and interrupts tics that cause me to hit myself.

Lexi is very tuned into my tics, so tuned in that she can sense my tic fits 10 minutes before they happen. This allows me to get somewhere safe and find help. If there is no one around to help, she will go and find someone or bark to get help.

It’s just a pity that she can’t cook or make a cup of tea for me as those are things I still can’t do due to my impulsive tics!

Having Lexi helps gives me more confidence to go out into public, not only because I know she’ll keep me safe, but because I get a very different reaction off members of the public when Lexi is with me. People don’t stare at me so much for ticcing now, or if they do, they see Lexi and understand that I can’t control my tics. People will also come over to me and ask questions about Lexi which allows me to educate them on Tourette’s and assistance dogs.

Tourette’s completely changed my life - my school was shocked at the sudden change in me but was very supportive and I did well in my GCSE’s, unfortunately I had a tough two years at my first college where some of my tutors lacked understanding and empathy around my tics. I transferred sixth forms this year to continue with my music studies in a much more understanding and supportive environment, even Lexi is much happier there!

In September I’m going to university to do my degree in music, and with the right support and Lexi by my side, I hope to move away from home and not let the fact I have Tourette’s stop me!

I always try and see the positives the condition has brought. I’ve learned so much about myself, but also about other people and how other’s see the world. I’ve met so many inspiring people with Tourette’s and other neurological conditions who have helped me to embrace my differences. Lexi has made such a positive difference in my life, I hope that assistance dogs can be more accessible for others living with Tourette’s.

For more information, please visit https://m.facebook.com/lexithesuperdog/


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How having my Assistance dog, Lexi, changed my life around.

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