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Show of strength

Show stick in hand, 12-year-old Treyton Burchette skillfully guides his Berkshire hog with all the confidence of a seasoned livestock exhibitor. The young man exudes showmanship with his cowboy boots, blue jeans, button-down shirt and gleaming trophy belt buckle—his hard-earned award for win­ning Grand Champion Market Hog at the 2019 Benton County Fair in Benton­ville, Ark.

Trey’s parents, Eric and Jessica Burchette, observe proudly nearby. Big brother Tyler, 16, an accomplished livestock show­man himself, stands ready to assist if necessary.

There’s one other set of attentive eyes on Trey. His loyal service dog, Tosha, is keeping close watch with­out interfering in the show demo. The nearly 2-year-old chocolate lab is Trey’s constant companion, best friend and fierce protector, trained to get help and keep him safe from seizures caused by a rare form of epilepsy.

“Treyton was born totally healthy and then had his first seizure at 2 years, 4 months, in my arms,” Jessica said. “At first, doctors told us it was probably febrile, because he had a fever at the time, and we’d never see them again. But he had another one, and they kept getting worse. Nobody could figure out what was wrong. They couldn’t get the seizures to stop, and he wasn’t respond­ing to medications. He went from totally healthy, meeting milestones, no issues whatsoever, to this.”

After being referred to Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth, Texas, Trey was diagnosed with Doose Syndrome, or MAE (myoclonic astatic epilepsy). The condition is so rare that it only affects one out of every 1,000 children with epileptic disorders. Char­acterized by frequent generalized seizures, Doose Syndrome has no known cause and is often resistant to medication, making it difficult to control.

“He’s failed multiple types of treatments. We’ve been in nu­merous ambulance rides. We’ve been life-flighted,” Jessica said. “We’ve really been through the wringer with it. Last summer [2018], the doctors told us we’d run out of medicine options and were just going to have to roll with the seizures as they come.”

To help Trey cope with his condition, the neurologist recom­mended a seizure alert dog. The Burchettes embraced the idea, despite the fact that the price would be about $15,000.

“At least if he was going to seize, we wanted him to be safe as possible,” Jessica said. “Having a service dog gives him as much normalcy as he could have with his condition.”

The family was connected with On Command Canine Training Center in Joplin, Mo., where Trey met Tosha. She was 4 months old at the time and just getting started with her training.

“They put me in a room and said they were going to bring in the puppies one by one,” Trey said. “They said the dog would choose me. I wouldn’t choose the dog. They’d bring in a puppy, and it would play with me for a little while, and then go play with my mom or dad or my brother. But when they brought Tosha in, she came straight to me, and in five minutes, we were both asleep on each other.”

“The connection was unbelievable,” Jessica added.

Insurance doesn’t cover the cost of service dogs, so the com­munity did instead. Friends and neighbors in the Burchettes’ hometown of Gravette, Ark., hosted a chili supper and auction in October 2018 at their church, Harvest Baptist, raising more than enough money to bring Tosha home. More than 350 people attended the fundraiser, including members of their “show family” such as MFA Livestock Specialist Greg Davis.

“If there is a silver lining what Treyton has to go through, it’s seeing the love and support of the community that he has built around him,” Greg said. “We’re all blessed to know him. In his own way, he makes everyone around him better.”

With the cost covered and her training complete, Tosha joined the family last May and spent the summer traveling their show circuit, which includes county and regional fairs and cul­minates in October with the American Royal in Kansas City. The Burchette boys exhibit Berkshire and crossbred hogs, purchas­ing some of their animals from Eichorn Showpigs in Troy, Ohio, and raising some themselves.

Tosha also started fifth grade this past fall with Trey at Gravette Upper Elementary School. Classmates treat her “just like another kid,” Trey said. In fact, Tosha even had her “offi­cial” school photo taken for the yearbook along with her fellow students. The adorable pup’s portrait gained national notoriety when Principal Mandy Barrett shared it on social media. The post went viral and led to several stories on local and national television stations.

“This is Tosha—she is the Certified Service Dog for one of our fifth-grade students with seizures,” the post said. “She sat so nicely for her very first school pictures last week! We are proud of how well she has acclimated to the culture here at GUE...and how well our students have welcomed her into our family.”

Tosha is trained to sense when a seizure may be imminent. And when Trey had his first epileptic episode at school in November, Tosha did exactly what she was supposed to do— got an adult to help and then rushed back to her boy, nestling herself under his head to protect him from harm.

“She knows before I do if I’m going to have a seizure,” Trey said. “She’ll go find someone and kind of bump up against them, like almost knock them over, to let them know. Then she’ll come back to me and try to keep me from hitting a hard surface.”

That particular seizure lasted 32 minutes and ended in an ambulance ride to the hospital. Since then, the seizures have be­come worse and more frequent, making Tosha’s presence even more valuable. In December, the family had an extended stay at Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock for more testing in hopes of a solution.

“We’ve learned to just take it one day at a time,” Jessica said. “It’s hard seeing him go through these and being able to do nothing. It breaks my mama heart.”

She said showing pigs is the perfect pastime for Trey, who can’t be cleared to play sports because of his seizures (even though he’d like to play football and basketball). Epilepsy hasn’t hindered the young man’s success in the show ring, and having Tosha to monitor him at the shows allows Mom and Dad to give him more freedom to “just be a kid.”

“He’s at the age where he likes to run and play with his friends, and Tosha will play, too,” Jessica said. “It’s peace of mind for me, knowing that he can go have fun, but if he seizes, she’s going to get an adult. All the families we show with are aware of his condition, and if Tosha comes up to them, they know something’s wrong.”

Trey has been showing pigs since age 5, when he entered his first show at the Benton County Fair. He’s following in the foot­steps of Tyler, who began showing in 4-H at age 9 and is now a sophomore and FFA member at Decatur High School. The collection of awards between the two brothers has been steadily growing ever since.

“It takes a lot of hard work,” Tyler said. “It means working with your pigs every day, any chance you get. But it’s worth it. And the friends you make are usually more lasting than the ones you make at school.”

Their parents are quick to point out that the boys have full responsibility for their livestock projects.

“We’ve been to shows where some of the kids don’t even know what their pigs are until they get there. That’s not teaching them anything,” Eric said. “With our kids, we put good pigs in their hands, and we provide them with good feed. The rest is up to them.”

At Greg’s recommendation, the family started using MFA’s new Ring Leader show diets last year. The results were exceptional, Eric said. Both Tyler and Trey won top placings at nearly every event they attended.

“We fed the Ring Leader without any additives or supplements,” Eric said. “We are definitely pleased with it. We did very well this year.”

The family is especially proud of their wins at the 2019 Ozark Empire Fair in Springfield, Mo., where Trey took home the Overall Supreme Champion title in both the junior and open shows. To win the premier award two days in a row—with two different judges—is quite an achievement, Greg points out, attributing Ring Leader’s high-quality nutrition and the Burchettes’ attention to high-quality swine genetics in creating this winning combination.

“They do a good job of picking good, sound pro­ductive pigs, and Ring Leader is going to give them the performance to go all the way,” Greg said. “It’s good-quality feed at a more affordable price than a lot of others on the market. And Ring Leader also has Shield Technology, which is important for keeping animals healthy when traveling the show circuit.”

This year, the Burchettes plan to attend some winter shows for the first time and compete at the World Pork Expo in Indianapolis in June. Their aggressive show schedule means a lot of travel and time away from home, but the family believes the benefits go well beyond belt buckles and trophies.

“Showing keeps us pretty busy, but it also keeps Trey and Tyler out of trouble, helps them build good relationships with other kids and gives us something to do as a family,” Eric said. “It also teaches them responsibility and that they have to work hard to get results. Those are the kinds of lessons that will serve them well in life.”

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