Seizure-Alert Dogs: Just the Facts, Hold the Media Hype

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Originally Published in 2007

"Seizure-alert dogs, save lives." This is what the media would like the general public to believe. While it makes for a great headline, it also makes for a grave misrepresentation of the truth.The truth is: seizure dogs can not be trained to “alert” a person of an oncoming seizure. Therefore, a seizure dog may be useful in assisting a person during or after a seizure, but is not guaranteed to be able to “alert” a person of an oncoming seizure.

Seizure-alert dogs, as implied by their name, are dogs that can sense and notify their human companions of an oncoming seizure. This alerting behavior has been reported to occur several seconds to 45 minutes or more before the onset of the seizure. The dog does this by exhibiting marked changes in behavior, including close eye contact, circling, pawing, barking etc.

According to Deborah Dalziel, research coordinator on seizure alert dogs for a University of Florida Veterinary Medicine study, “There is this misconception that any seizure dog can be trained to alert, which just isn’t true. A dog can cue in on minute behavioral differences, but can't be trained to alert.” She points out that there are no scientific studies to support the many theories on how dogs detect an oncoming seizure. "What we know on how dogs can alert to a seizure before it occurs is still a mystery. From a scientific standpoint, there is still so much that remains to be determined," said Dr. Basim Uthman, associate professor of neurology and neuroscience at the University of Florida College of Medicine and Brain Institute.

In the 1998 study conducted by Dalziel, Uthman and colleagues, a qualitative questionnaire was completed by 63 epilepsy subjects. Of the 63 subjects, 29 owned pet dogs. Of the 29 subjects, nine reported that their dogs 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 reported to also alert their human companion to an impending seizure.

While the numbers of the study done at the University of Florida were too small to be conclusive, they did suggest that the dogs’ alerting behavior is not breed, age or gender specific. Also, the study indicated that the dog is more likely to alert to a person with a certain type of seizure, a person who experiences migraine headaches, and a person who experiences certain types of auras. Furthermore, the study indicated that the effectiveness of the seizure-alerting dog depends greatly on the ability of the human companion to recognize and appropriately respond to the dog’s alerting behavior. Megan Esherick, a trainer for Canine Partners For Life, confirmed this by stating, “For some people, a seizure-alert dog can really make a difference. Generally, the person needs to have the cognitive ability to notice that the dog is trying to alert them and respond accordingly. Sometimes the dog may be alerting in more subtle ways other than barking or pawing, and the person needs to be able to pick-up on that.”

Some trainers and researchers believe the dog is able to alert by detecting subtle changes in human behavior. While others assert that a dog’s heightened sense of smell enables it to detect an oncoming seizure. “I think a lot of it is that people give off cues and dogs are more alert to body language,” said Mike Sapp, chief operating officer of Paws With A Cause. “But there haven’t been enough scientific studies done. So who really knows why?” Sapp believes that true alerting behavior is the result of the dog and human developing a strong bond, which can only evolve over time.

Seizure-Alert, Seizure-Response, Seizure-Assist: What Is the Difference?

Contrary to the media's portrayal, not all seizure dogs are "alert" dogs. In fact, there are different types of seizure dogs depending on the skill set they either have or acquire through training.

Whereas seizure-alert dogs assist their human companions before a seizure occurs, seizure-response or seizure–assist dogs help during and after a seizure. This behavior, as Dalziel points out, can be innate or trained. Seizure-assist dogs can be trained to stay close to their companions for the duration of the seizure, as well as fetch medications, a telephone or caretaker. A seizure-assist dog is trained to assist the human companion, but may or may not alert.

Love at First Bark

When referring to service dogs, more specifically seizure dogs, the emphasis is usually placed on how well the dog can assist the human companion. Yet, the relationship between canine and human is a reciprocal one. Hence, just as the service dog must meet certain criteria, so must the person selected to receive the dog. “It is very important for the person who is thinking of getting a seizure dog to understand what a significant commitment it is. They have to go through an application process at our organization where they complete a written application, submit an essay, and undergo an interview by phone or in person," said Esherick.

Potential seizure dog owners must also assess whether or not they are physically, emotionally and financially able to care for the dog. Dalziel asserts that, “people don’t realize the responsibility of having a service dog. It is different than owning a pet. You have to maintain training, health and a good working relationship with a veterinarian that understands the special needs of a service dog. The success of a service dog depends as much on the human partner as it does on the dog.”

Ensuring success of a seizure dog must also include a lot of playtime and exercise since these activities help in keeping the dog's stress level down. Esherick believes the most stressful event for a seizure dog is to be separated from their human companion. “The seizure dog takes its job very seriously. When they are separated from their person, they are unable to do their job, which causes a tremendous amount of anxiety.”

Service Dog Trainers

Currently, there are about 120 service dog training organizations in the United States. Fewer than 20 of these organizations work with seizure-assist dogs, according to Dalziel, who co-authored the booklet, “Service Dogs for People with Seizure Disorders.” Training of service dogs can take 6 months to 2 years depending on the availability of appropriate dogs and the tasks they are being taught. Due to the intensive level of training required, the cost ranges from $10,000 to $25,000. At this time, the training of service dogs is not regulated. Therefore, each service dog organization has their own set of criteria for selecting clients, placing dogs, and collecting fees.

Knowledge is Power

In recent years, the seizure-alert dog has gained national media attention generating a rise in the number of people wishing to obtain such a dog for themselves or a family member who suffers from an uncontrolled seizure disorder. Sadly, some of the information has been inaccurate and has fostered unrealistic expectations of these service dogs. Through facts and empirical evidence about seizure-alert dogs, prospective seizure-dog owners, as well as the community at large, can be empowered to make reality-based decisions.

Seizure Dog Information and Resources

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The mission of the Epilepsy Foundation is to lead the fight to overcome the challenges of living with epilepsy and to accelerate therapies to stop seizures, find cures, and save lives.

 
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