Medical assistance dogs can change the lives of people who manage complex and life-threatening medical conditions on a day to day basis.
While Labrador Retrievers are the most commonly known assistance dog breed, today we are excited to share the story of Emily and Barna Kutya the Hungarian Vizsla Assistance Dog.
Emily shares her personal story, when Barna came into her life and how Barna’s life saving nose was the beginning of a wonderful life changing partnership.
Can you tell us a little about you and your condition?
My name is Emily Cook, I’m 23 years old and I live with a complex neurological disorder that causes me to lose consciousness without warning.
I’ve had this condition since I was 12 years old.
Can you describe the impact your condition has on your day-to-day life?
My condition causes unpredictable collapses, and loss of neurological functions such as my ability to walk, talk, see and hear.
This has affected everything from my childhood and schooling to my plans for the future and my ability to live a full and independent life.
Before Barna I couldn’t leave the house and was at continued risk of harm, injury and hospital admission.
Thankfully my quality of life is greatly improved thanks to Barna.
How old is Barna and when did he come into your life?
Barna is currently six years old, and will be turning seven in April, where his birthday falls coincidently just four days after my own!
Barna came into my life in 2016. We had met his mother and father while he was still in his mummy’s tummy.
I first held him when he was just 4 days old and looked like a baked bean! He came home with us at 8 weeks old.
Why did you choose a vizsla? What do you love about Hungarian vizslas?
After convincing my reluctant dad to finally allow us to have a dog, we all agreed to let him have the final say about what breed we were going to get.
We ended up having a shortlist of breeds that came down to Weimaraners, German Shorthaired Pointers or a Hungarian Vizsla.
After meeting examples of each with obviously chose the ginger whirlwinds!
I personally love that Vizslas are so incredibly smart, loving and compassionate. They have this innate want to please and be with you, not forgetting to mention they are stunning looking dogs as well.
Discovering Barna’s Medical Alert Abilities
Can you describe how Barna can detect your condition?
Barna has learnt to detect the tiny pheromone changes my body releases before a collapse. These can be found in things like my sweat and breath, for example.
Dogs have incredibly powerful noses, able to detect just 1 tsp of a scent in the equivalent to two Olympic sized swimming pools.
In the same way that dogs can learn to smell for things like drugs or explosives, they can learn the scent of illness too.
How old was was Barna when you discovered his ability to detect your condition?
Barna was approximately six months old when he first showed noticeable attempts to alert to my oncoming collapses.
This young age is partially down to him living with me from day one, and us never hiding my condition from him right from puppyhood.
Barna’s Medical Assistance Dog Training
Did you train Barna yourself or did he have formal training?
It’s a combination of both! Barna is a remarkable individual, in that he taught himself the scent work required without any training whatsoever, acting entirely from instinct.
Because of this we contacted the charity Medical Detection Dogs.
After assessments to check his character they agreed he could start training with them to become an accredited Assistance dog.
He needed no training in scentwork. Instead it was focused on what is known as ‘Public Access’. This is the process of teaching a dog how to behave in environments that dogs don’t normally go, such as supermarkets, hospitals and restaurants.
This involves keeping them focused, and learning to ignore everyday distractions like other people, food and animals while working as well as settling and being almost invisible when required.
How long did it take for Barna to be accredited as a medical alert assistance dog?
Barna started his official training when he was around 18 months old.
We became an accredited partnership in just over a year, a very quick result even by assistance dog standards.
Editors note: There is varying terminology used for assistance dogs worldwide. Assistance Dogs International states that Assistance Dogs is a “generic term for a guide, hearing, or service dog specifically trained to do three or more tasks to mitigate the effects of an individual’s disability.”
In the UK the term used to describe medical alert assistance dogs like Barna is assistance dog. In the US they are often called service dogs.
About Vizsla Assistance Dogs
Is it common for Vizslas to be trained as medical assistance dogs?
Barna was the first Hungarian Vizsla in the UK to become an accredited Medical Alert Assistance dog!
Gundog breeds like Labradors and spaniels are normally used for this work due to their good nature and strong scenting behaviours.
But since Barna, Medical Detection Dogs have already made another Vizsla partnership, showing they do have the ability to make good assistance dogs.
What are the features of vizslas that make them good medical alert assistance dogs?
Generally it’s their compassion and love for people combined with their gundog roots, and a flare for learning new things quickly.
But as I’m sure many will know they can be very energetic and loopy, so it’s a fine balance.
What challenges have you faced due to his breed?
The main challenges we faced were, and still are, access challenges and refusals.
Public perception of assistance dogs often means people think that only breeds like Labradors can be used. And so we have been told many times before we aren’t allowed in somewhere we are legally entitled to go.
Thankfully most the time after explanation this can be resolved, but we do experience it more than other partnerships due to Barna’s breed.
Another challenge we faced in the beginning of training, was how to get a hyper Vizsla to just lie down and relax when required!
Barna is now thankfully the picture of chilled bliss when settling, but it took a lot of work and indeed frustration.
Vizslas are high energy dogs – how do you balance his work with his exercise needs?
Barna is an extremely adaptable individual, which is probably what made him the perfect candidate to be an assistance dog.
The main thing for him is keeping him mentally stimulated, which we have found is just as effective as a physical excursion.
That’s not to say he doesn’t love a good walk! A typical day for him will involve two sessions of exercise / walking.
In the morning we walk to a large open field near our home, where he enjoys his favourite energy burner of a game of ball. We often incorporate Gundog training into this, which keeps him really mentally engaged and ensures he isn’t overdoing just running back and forth non-stop.
As for his afternoons, this normally involves a general off lead walk in places he loves like over fields, woodland, canals, or in parkland/nature reserves, which is typically a minimum of around an hour.
But sometimes both of these, or neither are required. If he has spent a whole day out with me doing public access and working, it’s very mentally tiring for him and he just wants a good nap afterwards!
About The Medical Detection Dogs Charity
Tell us about Medical Detection Dogs and the work they do
Medical Detection Dogs is a UK charity that trains dogs to support individuals with complex health conditions who have limited awareness of an impending life-threatening medical event.
This training saves their lives on a daily basis and helps the NHS by keeping them out of hospital.
The charity works entirely by public donations, and receives no government funding.
They also work to carry out ground breaking research to improve early diagnosis of cancer and other diseases using their Bio-Detection dogs.
How much does it cost to train a medical alert assistance dog?
It costs around £30,000 ($35,000 USD) to raise a dog from puppyhood to being partnered with a client. The process takes around two years, and is funded entirely by donations.
As part of giving back to the charity that helped us so much, we are hoping to raise this amount via our Just Giving page, to give someone else the same opportunity we have had with Barna.
How You Can Help
Donate: If you would like to support the training of medial assistance dogs like Barna, donate through Emily’s Just Giving page here.
Watch: Barna and Emily’s story is featured in the Netflix series The Hidden Life Of Pets. Watch it here.
Learn: Find out more about Medical Assistance Dogs and stories like Emily and Barna’s at Medical Detection Dogs UK.
Do you have or know a vizsla assistance dog? Let us know in the comments below, or contact us to share their story.
More Life With Vizsla Articles
Or, browse all the Life with vizslas articles here.