South Jordan • Shanna Wilkinson knew there was something special between her and the Shetland sheepdog puppy from the very beginning.
Holly, as the pretty sable-and-white pup was named, quickly became teenage Shanna's best friend. They trained together for obedience competition, agility meets and herding.
Yet the power of their bond only became fully clear when Shanna was about 17. That's when Shanna started having seizures, and Holly started warning about them before anyone else knew what was happening.
Wilkinson now knows that when Holly whines and paws at her, or when the dog fetches her medicine or her phone, a seizure is coming on. And if Wilkinson fails to respond, Holly alerts her mother or a friend.
"She tells me," said Wilkinson. "She just does it."
This fall, Holly is a finalist in the 2012 American Hero Dog competition, sponsored by the American Humane Association and the Hallmark Channel. The two, who already have raised $6,000 for charity in the past year, will travel this fall to a Beverly Hills gala honoring hero dogs in eight categories.
Based on voting from the public and a panel of celebrity judges, one of the eight dogs will win top honors plus a $10,000 contribution to the charity of the owner's choice.
Holly, 11, is competing in the "service dog" category for her remarkable ability to sense Wilkinson's seizures, to warn her before they happen and to alert others of an emergency. The other categories are law enforcement, therapy, military, guide, hearing, search and rescue, along with an "emerging hero" honor for ordinary dogs who do extraordinary things.
Shanna told Holly's story during the Tails and Tales event last weekend at South Jordan's new Viridian Center. Trailing the two was a film crew that is preparing a vignette about them for an awards ceremony that will be televised in November.
A senior at Weber State University in visual communications, Wilkinson appeared poised and relaxed despite all the attention.
Resting in the shade alongside her was Holly's lovely daughter, Alaska. And, at her feet, elegant Holly lay in the grass and looked on as if following Wilkinson's every word.
"She's my best friend," said Wilkinson, who lives in Magna. "We grew up together, and then when I started having seizures, she became more than my best friend. She became my lifeline, and she's a part of me.
"I know that sounds weird, but she is. She's just always there, no matter where I am. She's right there."
Holly and Shanna perfected their partnership in Utah, in a program called At Your Service Dogzz. In addition, the duo learned service-dog etiquette to handle a range social situations, from fielding questions to entering an elevator.
Even though she has been raising and training Shelties for 26 years, Cindy Wilkinson could always see the strong bond between her daughter and the puppy that was her 14th-birthday present. Now Holly has proven to be a gift that truly keeps giving.
"We all kind of said it at the same time: 'She's talking to you,' " the mother recalled of the moment everyone realized why the ordinarily well-behaved Holly was acting up.
The discovery has given mother and daughter a new freedom. For Cindy Wilkinson, it eased the nonstop worry about the next seizure. Knowing Holly was there provided reassurance that her daughter was in safe hands even if they were paws.
The best friends have a busy schedule in coming weeks, with the upcoming Hero Dog competition and their usual outreach and fundraising. They'll take it in stride because they get to do it together.
"She's my hero," said Wilkinson. "She saved my life. She's always there. She's my everything."
Hometown Hero Dog
Holly, a seizure alert and response service dog from Magna, is a finalist to become the 2012 American Hero Dog in a competition hosted by the American Human Association and the Hallmark Channel. You can vote for Holly or one of her seven competitors by visiting the Hero Dogs Award page or her web page. In addition, Holly and teammate Shanna Wilkinson are trying to raise money for the Chelsea Hutchinson Foundation to search for answers about SUDEP, or Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy.