Allison and Tasha

I had the great pleasure of a wonderful Sunday afternoon conversation with Allison and Carol of Pennsylvania.

Carol, Allison and Tasha
Carol, Allison and Tasha

Allison is a resilient young woman who has lived with epilepsy since the age of six. She has undergone multiple medical and surgical treatments to help control her seizures. Thirteen years ago, Allison and her family welcomed their lovely black Labrador retriever, Tasha, into their lives and their home. Tasha is Allison’s seizure dog and has been her constant companion for the past 13 years.

Allison’s mom, Carol, has experienced firsthand the benefits a seizure dog can bring to a family. She also shares with us the awesome responsibility and commitment it takes to care for a seizure dog. Carol is chairman-elect of the Board of Directors at the Epilepsy Foundation of Eastern Pennsylvania. For two decades she has been a steadfast supporter and advocate for every person and every family facing the challenges that epilepsy brings.

How did you first learn about seizure dogs?

(Carol) Allison’s seizures began at age 6. She has received treatment with multiple medications and has had five surgeries. Unfortunately, she still has frequent seizures, often dozens each day. We regularly attend conferences that the Epilepsy Foundation of Eastern Pennsylvania hosts to learn more about epilepsy, new therapies, and supports in our community. We decided to pursue a service dog for Allison after learning about seizures dogs at one of these conferences. We have always looked for ways for Allison to be independent despite frequent seizures. Allison and the rest of our family felt the reassurance of a seizure dog might be really helpful in this regard.

Having a sense of independence is important for everyone. We found out about seizure dogs at an Epilepsy Foundation education conference and felt a seizure dog might be helpful for Allison and our entire family. - Carol

What was the process to obtain a seizure dog like?

(Carol) We researched to find the best possible seizure dog organization and training facility near us. We then began talking directly with them and the application process followed. The Epilepsy Foundation of Eastern Pennsylvania helped us learn about the process that people have to go through to obtain a seizure dog. It is a long process! We reviewed the costs and the commitment and also discussed it with our epilepsy caregivers.

The organization where we obtained our seizure dog, Tasha, had very strict and specific guidelines around training seizure dogs and also training individuals and families to take on the responsibility of a seizure dog. We learned how dog trainers work to match the personalities of the dogs with their future owners to ensure the best possibility of a successful match.

Finding a good, reliable and certified trainer is very important. - Allison

Can you share more about participating in the training process?

(Carol) Allison’s dog, Tasha, had 2 years of training before meeting us. The first year Tasha was trained to be a good puppy, learning all the basic skills and routines any puppy might learn, for example, potty training, set meal and sleep times, socializing with people and other dogs, and being walked on a leash. During the second year, Tasha progressed to learning the skills for seizure dog training. Even before we met Tasha, the trainers asked us to send a T-shirt of Allison’s that she had been wearing at the time of a seizure. This was an important part of Tasha’s training, linking her with Allison even before they met.

(Allison) Our in-person training was 3 weeks long. Both my mom and I attended the training, which was intense. It included having Tasha by my side at all times and taking Tasha out into real world situations with us. For example, part of the training included things like my taking Tasha on a walk in a park and on a shopping trip. It also included training at the facility where Tasha learned how to recognize and respond to my seizures. I also learned how to groom Tasha, including caring for her coat, clipping her nails and cleaning her teeth. This 3-week, around-the-clock training helped Tasha and I form a bond and allowed Tasha to learn what my seizures were like.

(Carol) We knew when we brought Tasha home that this was the right decision for our family, and we felt well prepared for what to expect from a seizure dog.

Tasha and Allison have a true bond. However, our entire family quickly fell in love with Tasha. - Carol

What kind of follow up did you have after the initial 3 weeks of training?

(Carol) After bringing Tasha home, we still had regular follow up with the training facility twice a year. They checked on how Tasha was doing with performing her duties as a seizure dog. They also wanted to see how she and Allison were bonding. Our family was responsible for regular visits to the vet. We were expected to follow instructions on things like the type of food we gave Tasha, keeping her vaccinations up to date, and making sure her weight stayed in the right range for her size so she could stay healthy and perform her duties. These follow up visits were very reassuring to Allison and our family. We wanted to give Tasha the best care possible. Now, at almost 15, Tasha is retired from her active seizure dog status. While we are fortunate she is still able to alert and respond to Allison’s seizures, she no longer has the same public privileges as an active service dog.

Can you describe how Tasha has played a role in keeping Allison safe and comforting Allison after a seizure?

(Carol) Tasha has been able to provide Allison or one of us with a warning before we notice a seizure is happening. She has also been able to come and alert one of our family members if Allison is having a seizure. Allison has three different types of seizures, and Tasha has been able to reliably alert us when Allison has generalized tonic-clonic or focal impaired awareness seizures. The third type of seizure, atonic seizures (sometimes called drop seizures), happen so quickly it has not been possible for Tasha to alert us before she falls.

Tasha was also trained to bring medication or a phone to Allison before she had a seizure, or to us if Allison was having a seizure, so that we could give a rescue medication or call for further help. Tasha has provided this help consistently during the daytime but has not been as reliable at night. She does sleep with Allison, but we have not relied on her for night time alerts. However, if Allison does have a bigger seizure with vocalizations during the night, Tasha does respond. Through the years, we have also consistently used a monitor to help make us aware of seizures Allison has during sleep.

(Allison) Tasha will come up to me and nuzzle me or rub my leg or she will give me a stare that lets me know I should sit down because a seizure is about to happen. This is a big help because often I fall with my seizures. Tasha is also a great comfort to me after a seizure, staying by my side and being affectionate. She has also been a real comfort at times when I needed to have tests done or spend time in the hospital for my seizures. Tasha would stay with me in the hospital room and was so quiet and calm in the hospital that sometimes the doctors would not even realize she was there!

(Carol) What we have learned over time, meeting other families with seizure dogs, is that every experience with a seizure dog is different. No two situations are the same. The joy and companionship that comes with a seizure dog is consistent. The ability to alert and respond to different types of seizures is very individual.

Tasha has been a godsend. She is a sweet natured dog, wonderful companion, and has brought the whole world to Allison. - Carol

How has Tasha played a role in Allison’s independence?

(Carol) Tasha has provided a sense of security to both Allison and the rest of our family. Allison continues to have very frequent daily seizures. Having Tasha by Allison’s side allows Allison to be in a different room in the house or out in the yard without one of us. We know that Tasha can alert us if Allison is having a seizure. We all feel an extra sense of security if Allison goes to spend time with a friend with Tasha. We know Tasha will let Allison or someone else know if a seizure occurs.

Tasha is such a great companion, giving me more freedom to get to go out and see friends, knowing I can do things with her by my side. I know having Tasha with me comforts my whole family. - Allison

What other tips can you offer to individuals and families thinking about bringing a seizure dog into their lives?

(Carol) A seizure dog can bring both reassurance and joy. Understanding that the benefits of a seizure dog only come if you are committed to the long-term training and care of a seizure dog is key to success. The organization we used works very hard to educate people about being a good service dog owner. They emphasize that every time you go out in the public with your seizure dog you are an ambassador for all service dogs. Returning the love and safety a seizure dog can bring by being a responsible owner ensures that service animals will continue to be available to people with seizures who really need them.

It is also important to discuss your choice of a seizure dog with your medical team. They may have advice about your specific type of seizures and the role a seizure dog can play. They may also be able to link you to other families who have a seizure dog.

The Epilepsy Foundation of Eastern Pennsylvania helped lead us to Tasha. Hearing about seizure dogs at the education conference was life changing for Allison and our family. We would encourage anyone looking for information to reach out to their local Epilepsy Foundation.

Finally, if you have a seizure dog, share your experience with the epilepsy community where you live. One of the best things about being a part of the Epilepsy Foundation family is the love, support and learning we share with one another. A seizure dog can bring a sense of safety and comfort to help individuals and families and help manage the unpredictability that epilepsy can bring.

Tasha makes me feel so loved and happy, she has been my companion on good days and on really tough days. - Allison
Authored By: 
Elaine Kiriakopoulos MD, MSc
Authored Date: 
04/2019
Reviewed By: 
Elaine Wirrell MD
Patty Obsorne Shafer RN, MN
on: 
Sunday, April 7, 2019