‘I never let myself dream of this’: medical detection dog allows rider to get into the saddle at last

  • “I don’t think I ever let myself dream of this kind of life. It’s really special and I treasure it.”

    Paige Bartram did not think she would ever be able to ride. She suffers from postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), a disorder of the autonomic nervous system, one effect of which is that her heart rate can drop and her blood pressure rise, leading to her collapsing.

    This ruled out riding but thanks to the warnings provided by Bear, a labrador from charity Medical Detection Dogs, she has been able to get into the saddle.

    “Bear’s unbelievable, he still blows my mind every day,” Paige told H&H. “Before, riding just wouldn’t have been in my remit, but because of him, I’ve got this freedom.”

    Paige was diagnosed with POTS when she was a teenager, having started collapsing some six months after she suffered a bout of chicken pox.

    She thinks of herself as one of the lucky ones, as some of those with the condition are affected worse, but no medication she has tried has improved her symptoms.

    She applied to Medical Detection Dogs and last August, was matched with Bear, who was then 15 months old. She explained that all the charity’s dogs have extensive all-round training, then they work with the people they are matched with, to become used to an individual’s warning signs.

    “The trainer, Gail, is fantastic,” Paige said. “I saw Bear once a week, and they’d take sweat samples from me and freeze them, to train him with. They give you little bits of dry cloth, then when I collapsed, and my body’s giving off all the scents and hormones that we can’t smell, someone would have to wipe off my sweat on the cloth, and freeze it. Then the dog is trained with that scent, and is attuned to that smell. It’s incredible.”

    Bear gives Paige three to seven minutes’ warning of a forthcoming collapse, allowing her to be prepared.

    “He’s really goofy and playful; he’ll be bounding about, then he’ll just stop dead and start sniffing,” she said. “He stretches his neck out and will paw the air and sometimes grumble; we try to encourage the audible alert in case I’m not paying attention.”

    Bear can detect the signs from a distance; once Paige’s partner Lucy Dewsnap was in the garden and Paige was inside, but Bear could smell the change through closed doors, and alerted Lucy to what was going on.

    “If someone else is around, he’ll get them; he once tried telling a woman in the queue in Lidl!” Paige said. “It’s a fun game to him, and maybe he doesn’t realise he’s playing such a huge part in allowing me to live my life the way I am.”

    Even running along the beach while Paige rides, with wind and other scents and sounds, Bear will stop immediately if he senses a problem, alerting Paige and allowing her to dismount safely.

    “Lucy’s always had horses so with her supervision, and Bear; it’s allowed me so much freedom,” Paige said. “I was afraid before, putting up barriers to protect myself, and when I first got on, I felt apprehensive and wobbly, but it was amazing, it felt like everything drained away. That’s a cliche but it’s incredible to be able to do these things.”

    Paige praised the “wonderful” charity that allowed her to have Bear, which is also currently training dogs to detect Covid.

    “I feel unbelievably grateful for the opportunity Medical Detection Dogs, and everyone who donates to them, has given me,” she said. “It all sounds like cliches and cheesiness but they’re cliches for a reason. It hit me quite hard when so much had to change but I feel I’m coming back into it, and Bear and the charity have allowed me to.

    “I feel very special to have him, the quality of my life now is miles from where it was. I don’t think I’d ever let myself dream of this kind of life because I didn’t think I’d be able to do it. It’s very special and I treasure it.”

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