Like many students, Lydia Storey comes to college with her best friend – the difference being is that Lydia’s best friend is her Medical Assistance Dog, April!
Eight-month-old Labradoodle April has changed Lydia’s life and is now her constant companion – which includes being by her side on her journey to Havering Colleges Sixth Form in Wingletye Lane, Hornchurch, and sitting in class with her for lessons.
Lydia, who is studying GCSE Maths and Level 2 ICT, has a rare back condition where her legs give way suddenly and she can suffer from a form of blindness for a short time. She has also been diagnosed with hypermobility and has a cognitive disability which affects her ability to comprehend situations and apply practical skills.
She said: “April has changed my life. I used to be housebound, unable to go to school or meet friends like normal teenagers because I had no confidence and was too scared that I would collapse. But since getting April earlier this year, I feel like I have been given my life back and I’m now able to go out and about. The college has been great in letting me bring April to lessons – it’s made such a difference.”
She added: “April has been trained to tell me when my legs are going to give way by scent detection – where she senses a certain smell in my saliva, blood and sweat. When this happens she nudges and paws my leg to alert me to find somewhere to sit down so that I don’t collapse.
“Sometimes April jumps onto my lap with her front legs. Although it may look like she’s having a cuddle, she’s actually applying pressure to a certain part of my legs because the nerves from my back start to make my legs shake uncontrollably and she has to cover them to stop the pain and the shaking.”
Lydia, formerly of Redden Court School, said: “Another one of April’s jobs is guiding, where she has to be in control when I suffer sudden blindness for a short period of time. Effectively I put my life in her paws! This is why, although it’s tempting to make a fuss of her, people should never distract a working dog.”
Lydia says April is very well behaved in class. “The teachers don’t mind her being in lessons because she just lays quietly under the desk. When she has her harness on she is working and is the perfect Assistance Dog, but when her harness comes off, she is a normal, boisterous eight-month-old puppy who loves to run and play.“
April has passed all her training tests. Her full title is Medical Alert, Psychiatric Response and Guiding Assistance Dog, meaning she has three jobs! She is allowed to go everywhere with Lydia, including public transport, shopping, restaurants and hospital appointments.
Lydia said: “Some people ask if it is weird having an Assistance Dog and my response is always, ‘no’ because it’s like having my best friend and my lifesaver with me 24/7.”
Sixth Form SENCO Leader Lorraine Barnet said: “The SENCO team has worked together with Lydia so that she can bring April into college rather than use a walker chair. Lydia is so much happier and feels much more independent since April has been on site.”