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."
Since 1996, the nonprofit organization has produced well over 25 seizure alert dogs that warn 15 minutes to 12 hours before an attack. The dogs exhibit attention-getting behaviors such as whining, pawing, or anxious barking.
The dogs came from a variety of sources. Some were from breeders or animal shelters; others were pets that showed an alerting ability. Hermansen said she encourages the alerting behavior with food rewards, then trains the dogs 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. When selecting a potential seizure alert dog to work with, she performs a trainability test. Hermansen says she "prays that God will show her the one that best fulfills the needs of the person with epilepsy."
"Every dog that I have chosen reliably alerts to pre-seizure activity," she said.
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, Dalziel says.
Second Chance at Life
The dogs that can provide seizure alerts give people the courage and independence to live normal lives. After Donna Jacobs suffered a stroke at age 42, she began having seizures. The unpredictability of when one would strike forced the Jefferson City, Missouri, woman to give up her job. She stopped doing simple tasks like driving to the grocery store.
"I lived as a recluse for almost four years, afraid to go anywhere," said Jacobs.
That all changed when she adopted a seven-week-old puppy, named Patra, from the local animal shelter. The Rottweiler/German shepherd mix canine started alerting about Jacobs' seizures when it was six months old. The dog head-butts Jacobs behind the knees about 20 minutes before a seizure episode. This gives Jacobs time to find a safe place to lay down and wait for the episode to pass, usually within 5 to 15 minutes. During a seizure Patra stays with Jacobs, giving her a sense of confidence and safety.
Jacobs believes Patra picks up a chemical change that occurs in her body. The dog is now six years old, she said, and also alerted Jacobs to her low blood sugar level, migraines and pulmonary heart valve infection.
Just how accurate is Patra's alerting ability?
"It's 100 percent, when I listen," Jacobs says with a laugh.
Thanks to her service dog, Jacobs feels she has been given a second chance at life. She now works as a marketing director for a computer company and is an advocate for people with disabilities.
In 1998, she started Service Dogs Today. The nonprofit organization works on antidiscrimination legislation, promotes service dogs as medically necessary, and encourages individuals to become service dog trainers.
In the United States there are about 120 service dog training organizations. Fewer than 20 work with seizure assist dogs, according to researcher Deborah Dalziel of Gainesville, Florida, who also co-authored the booklet "Service Dogs For People with Seizure Disorders."
Most trainers will not guarantee that a dog will alert. For that reason, the terms "seizure-response" or "seizure-assist" dog are often used.
Training can take up to two years to complete and can cost between $10,000 and $25,000. Health insurance companies do not cover the cost.
Montana is currently the only state with a Medicaid program that pays for the purchase of a service animal. Some service dog training organizations provide the animals for free or offer financial assistance. For example, the Canine Seizure Assist Society of North Carolina, Inc. based in Mooresville, North Carolina, gives trained seizure assist dogs without charge to qualified applicants.
The requirements to obtain a seizure assist dog vary among training centers but the one constant is the applicant's ability and willingness to give the animal proper care and follow-up training.