Anna Woltz gives an insight into how she researched assistance dogs for her book Talking to Alaska, a powerful story of two unlikely friends brought together by the love of a dog.

Talking to Alaska is a story about fear, but it’s also very much about courage. There are so many things in the world that might frighten you. So what do you do when you know things could go wrong any moment? Do you just stay in bed, or do you face the world? I always hope there are lots of wonderful things mixed up with the scary bits!

My main characters Sven and Parker are trying to answer the very same question: how to cope with a world that can be scary and uncertain? Parker’s summer has been terrible and she just wants to be invisible, while Sven is desperate to make a big impression on his first day at school. He’s really scared the others will just think of him as ‘that kid with epilepsy’ – and he’s so much more…

So let me tell you how I researched Talking to Alaska. There were many things I could invent, or take from my own life, or imagine, but assistance dog Alaska had to be exactly right, based on facts. And of course, so did Sven’s epilepsy.

It all began with dogs. I happen to love dogs. I am not just rather fond of them, I love them to bits. They don’t even have to make an effort: a wagging tail, a tilted head, a soft coat – and I’m smitten. But then I heard about assistance dogs. These dogs are not just sweet, they change their owner’s life entirely. Assistance dogs are not just indispensable because they dream with four paws up in the air, they really, truly help their owner in all kinds of fantastic ways.

I knew about Seeing Eye Dogs, but I discovered there are many more assistance dogs. Dogs helping children with autism, and people in wheelchairs, and veterans with PTSD. And then I came across assistance dogs for people with epilepsy. The skills of these dogs are truly exceptional, so I decided to write a book about such an extraordinary dog. But before I began writing, I had to find out much more about assistance dogs.

My research began with the Dutch Association for Assistance Dogs; I was shown around their big training centre in Noord-Brabant. All assistance-dogs-to-be are allowed to grow up in a foster home while they’re puppies. Once they’re one year old, they move to this special ‘doggy school’ for a training that takes several months.

I watched an enormous poodle being taught how to open a drawer, close the door and help a lady take off her boots. Thirty-five fantastic dogs were in training when I visited, but I wasn’t allowed to pet a single one of them! Total agony for a dog lover, but it’s really crucial: you’re never allowed to distract an assistance dog that is doing its job. The dog must be able to focus entirely on its owner and its important work. And even petting is a distraction…

My next visit was to Corrie and Cisko. Corrie has suffered epileptic seizures for twenty years. Before she had assistance dog Cisko, Corrie was constantly scared she would get hurt during a seizure. Because these seizures are so unpredictable, Connie was injured many times. She lost count of the times she was rushed to hospital in an ambulance… But now Cisko is there. He not only sets off an alarm with his muzzle when Corrie falls, he can do the best thing ever: he has learned to predict her seizures. It is truly miraculous – doctors and devices have no idea whether an epileptic fit is on the way, but some dogs sense it coming. We have no clue how these dogs do it – whether they smell something, or hear or see or feel it… But nowadays, Corrie is never injured. Cisco warns her in time, so she can safely lie down before the seizure begins. Cisco is totally indispensable and Corrie never leaves home without him.

Iris and Bieke showed me what life with an assistance dog means for a child. Iris is wheelchair-bound and she trained golden retriever Bieke herself, helped by the Association Child & Assistance Dog. At home, Bieke fetches and carries stuff for Iris, she pulls off Iris’s socks and can load the washing machine. Bieke also comes along to the shops, where she hands Iris the things she points out on the shelves. People who used to stare at Iris because she sits in a wheelchair now come up to her for a chat; they want to know all about Bieke. Iris hates it when people just stare at her, but she loves telling all about her wonderful dog!

Seventeen year old Manoah explained to me what it is like to have epilepsy in high school. She told me how it began for her, she talked about the way her classmates react when she is ‘gone’ for a moment and she shared her worries about the future with me. Before my book was published, Manoah read the manuscript. I asked her whether the feelings and thoughts of my character Sven rang true – and luckily she loved the story.

Finally I met Melanie and her beautiful assistance dog Snow. He is a white shepherd, just like the dog my parents used to own: Jefta. I still occasionally dream about Jefta, so I was speechless when I saw Snow: it felt like time travelling to a world where Jefta was still alive… Melanie trained Snow together with the Association Bultersmekke and gave me wonderful details about the whole process. She also described what ‘waking up’ from an epileptic seizure feels like.

So. My research was done. I had a notebook full of information and a head full of awe-inspiring stories – and then I had to sort of forget it all and create my own story. And my own characters: thirteen year old Sven. Twelve year old Parker. And Alaska, a snow white golden retriever.

 

Talking to Alaska is out now in paperback.