Posted by Leah Stone at 11:55 AM Friday, January 23, 2009
People are always asking me what does a seizure alert dog do? So I thought I would address just that. Over the last decade a new kind of service animal has emerged. Seizure alert dogs warn people with epilepsy of an oncoming attack minutes—sometimes hours—before it occurs. This allows the person time to take seizure blocking medication, get to a safe place, or call for assistance.
How dogs detect an oncoming seizure in a human is a mystery. Some trainers and researchers think they detect subtle changes in human behavior or scent before an episode occurs. There are no scientific studies, however, to prove these theories. Trainers also believe the behavior is not breed, age or gender specific in dogs.
Seizure alert dogs are born with this remarkable ability. This sets them apart from other types of service animals.
"I can train a dog to sit, lay down and fetch," says Sharon Hermansen of Canine Seizure Assist Society of North Carolina, "but I can't teach a dog to alert."
My dog Charlie, a 15 pound miniature pincher, can warn me 5 to 10 minutes before an attack. Charlie, as well as other seizure alert dogs, exhibit attention-getting behaviors such as whining, pawing, or anxious barking. This alerting behavior is then rewarded, with food rewards usually by someone other that me cause I am having a seizure, and then they train Charlie to do other tasks. Dogs can be trained to stay with the person during a seizure or to press a button on the phone that dials 911.
About 2.3 million Americans suffer from epileptic seizures. Episodes can last from a few seconds to a few minutes, and may cause unconsciousness. Some epileptics avoid normal activities because they fear the consequences of having seizures in public. "It's sad, but some people have been robbed while having a seizure," said Deborah Dalziel, a research coordinator for a University of Florida Office of Veterinary Medicine study on seizure alert dogs.
The 1998 study involved questionnaires completed by 29 dog owners who had seizures at least once a month. Of the 29 subjects, nine reported that their dog responded to a seizure. These dogs remained close to their human companions either standing or lying alongside them, sometimes licking the person's face or hands during and immediately after the seizure. Of the nine dogs reported to respond, three were said to also alert their owners to an impending seizure about three minutes in advance.
The number of dogs with this ability is unknown. The lack of standardized training and certification of service dogs, and the variety of individuals who have themselves trained their pet to sound an alert, makes it difficult to determine how many seizure alert dogs there are in the United States.
All I know is that Charlie is the most amazing dog in the world. Thanks to him I have my freedom back and am not afraid to go anywhere because I know he will take care of me.