service dogs

Photos provided courtesy of Canine Partners for Life, Cochranville, Pennsylvania

Elaine Kiriakopoulos MD, MSc, interviews Victoria Pierangeli, trainer, and Susann Guy, chief operating officer at Canine Partners for Life, Cochranville, Pennsylvania

(EK) Thank you for making time to share your experience with the Epilepsy Foundation, Victoria and Susann. It would be terrific if you could share a little bit about the work you do to help our readers understand the process of training and placing a service dog.

Trainer Education

No degree is required to become a certified service dog trainer. In some states, licensure may be required, and voluntary certification programs are available.

Can you share what you know about the education required for someone to work as a service dog trainer?

(SG) Trainers come to the field with varied backgrounds. Some have education in animal science or veterinary studies and others in animal behavior. In the United States, there are a number of accredited college and community college programs for service dog trainers, which some trainers may attend. Depending on the program, trainers receive education in assistance dog training but also will learn about different disabilities and how they impact a person’s ability to function day to day.

(VP) It is important for people to understand that becoming a service dog trainer takes time and commitment. People who are interested in becoming a trainer should be patient and have good interpersonal and communication skills. It is also important they enjoy working with dogs and know how to use common dog training equipment. There are several different ways to become an effective professional who trains service dogs, but people should understand that the skills needed are acquired over years, not weeks.

Seizure Dog Resources

There are many seizure dog resources available for people to look into online. The Epilepsy Foundation 24/7 Helpline provides a resource list.

What resources do you suggest for someone considering a seizure dog?

(SG) Assistance Dogs International (ADI) is the leader in the field. ADI works to establish and promote standards of excellence in all areas of assistance dog acquisition, training and partnership, and educating the public on the benefits of assistance dogs.

  • ADI has an accreditation process.
  • Organizations that join ADI as members are assessed regularly to be sure they meet the highest standards in the industry.
  • ADI does not train or provide assistance dogs but provides the public with information on how to contact reputable organizations that provide service dogs.

Puppies, Puppies, Puppies!

There are many different things individuals and families should think about before bringing a seizure dog into their home. This includes some of the dog’s natural abilities that can be evaluated right from the earliest weeks of the puppy’s life.

How do you assess puppies for their suitability to become a seizure dog?

service dog puppy

(SG) It is important to ensure a puppy is in good health. So right from time they are born through 8 weeks, and then throughout their training, we ensure there are no signs of poor health. Puppies have scheduled veterinary appointments to ensure their eyes, heart, and joints are all in good order. They also are all kept up to date on vaccinations, and we work to keep them at a healthy weight.

(VP) We also spend time assessing the dog for things like confidence, reactivity, obedience, how the puppy responds in different environments like:

  • A private home
  • Public settings
  • Retail stores
  • Small and large group settings
  • Schools

We look at how they function when they are exposed to different situations or people, as well as their response to other animals.

What breeds of dogs are used for seizure dogs?

(SG) Any breed of dog can potentially be trained to become a seizure dog. The characteristics of the dog are taken into consideration. For example, if you need a dog to retrieve medication or a phone and bring these things to someone having a seizure, it does not make sense to choose a breed that has a very “wet mouth.”

Examples of seizure dog breeds that are frequently used include:

  • Labrador retrievers
  • Collies
  • Golden retrievers

Some organizations have breeding programs. Some only work with rescues. Others choose to work with mixed breeds.

Seizure Dog Skills

Service dogs can be specially trained to aid people in their routine daily tasks, as well as alerting, responding and retrieving.

What are some of the basic skills seizure dogs must learn in your program?

(VP) During the first year, puppies receive general puppy training in various settings. We monitor them very closely to assess their personality and temperament.

  • All puppies, starting at 8 weeks, are placed in volunteer community puppy homes to begin the process of early socialization. Early training includes learning basic socialization, obedience and house training. We also partner with a Prison Puppy Raising program.
  • Once puppies reach 6 months of age, inmate raisers focus on training our puppies with new obedience commands.
  • At 11 months of age, puppies will return to community homes until they are ready to start their formal training at Canine Partners for Life, typically around 14 months of age.

What do seizure dogs learn in the second year of training?

service dog opens refrigerator

(SG) Some action skills include training dogs to retrieve (“go get”), push buttons, open doors, turn lights off and on, pay a cashier and carry things, as well as working on alert and responding capabilities. Building skills in the harness so the dog can help with balance and support is also an area we work on. We work with a community partner who is committed to helping us assess a puppy’s natural ability to alert and respond to a seizure.

Do the puppies spend time out of the harness or off duty during their training?

(VP) Definitely! The puppies get out of harness playtime during their training. It is interesting that once they are placed with their partner in a home, even when the dogs are out of harness, they will often continue to be a “helper.” They have become in tune with what their partner needs. The bond is very strong.

Applying and Commitment to Partner with a Seizure Dog

The process of applying to partner with a seizure dog can be lengthy. Built into the process are factors like wait times and the financial costs of both acquiring and caring for a seizure dog.

What is the process for applying for a seizure dog with your organization?

(SG) If an individual or family is interested in partnering with a seizure dog, they will fill out an application that will help us better understand how a seizure dog may be able to help them. The application, initial interview and placement process includes:

  • Careful evaluation of an applicant’s goals and needs
  • Their seizure type(s)
  • Their willingness to learn about the responsibilities of caring for a seizure dog
  • Available peer and family supports
  • Their hobbies and interests
  • Their willingness to attend individual and team training sessions
  • Their ability to provide financially for the dog’s needs over its lifetime and many other things

It is a very measured and thoughtful process. We work very hard to match a dog’s personality and skills to the partner’s needs, personality and lifestyle.

What commitment is required from the individual or family?

(SG) Once a family has completed the application process, they are placed on a waiting list. When a dog becomes available, the family will be notified and will be asked to attend a two-and-a-half week, in-person training session. During this in-person training:

  • We evaluate how the dog partners with the person
  • Teach the owner skills to help them manage the dog’s behavior and focus, as well as the best way to give their dog the necessary commands
  • The dog and their partner spend 24 hours a day together.
  • We evaluate how well the dog is able to alert and respond to seizures and watch to see that a bond and trust are being built.

Training for the partner continues over the first year either at our CPL facility or with a local trainer who they will stay in touch with on a regular basis.

  • If the person with epilepsy’s seizures or health changes, then we offer reinforcement training, plus additional new skill and focus training for the dog and the owner.
  • We provide follow-up training and check in biannually with our seizure dogs and their partners.
  • We also evaluate our teams every year to two years to ensure they are working cohesively and safely together.
  • This check-in training continues for the working lifetime of our seizure dogs.

Are there age limits for someone to become a seizure dog partner?

(SG) At our organization, we place dogs with people age 12 and over who are able to communicate at a 6th grade level. This is because a certain level of maturity or ability is required to function as a seizure dog partner.

We consider every family that applies and bring into the equation both their needs and goals for requesting a service animal. Based on experience and aiming for the highest possible success, we do factor in general abilities. Our goal each time is to make a match between partner and seizure dog that is destined for success.

Final Thoughts

(EK) Thank you for sharing your time and experience with us. It is clear from speaking with you today that you both have a strong sense of commitment to the work you do.

What are the greatest benefits to individuals and families you have seen in your work with seizure dogs?

(VP) Seizure dogs and their partners have an incredible bond that forms over time. The strength of this bond is remarkable. It is wonderful to be part of the process of “building trust” between a dog and their partner.

(SG) The impact a seizure dog can have on an individual or family can be life changing. For many individuals and families, a seizure dog can bring a sense of relief. It helps them feel a higher level of safety or security. Over the years, individuals and families have talked about the independence, joy, confidence, security, and love are provided by their seizure dogs.

Authored By: 
Elaine Kiriakopoulos MD, MSc
Authored Date: 
Reviewed By: 
Elaine Wirrell MD
Sunday, April 7, 2019