How Service Dogs Help with Epileptic Seizures
By guest blogger Katia Hage
How Service Dogs Help with Epileptic Seizures
Receiving a prediction of a future event or imminent danger is invaluable. We rely on the weather forecast to know whether a rainstorm is coming. A hurricane warning helps us prepare and flee to a safe shelter. Even when not 100% accurate, predictions of the future and hazardous incidents bring us relief. It is no different, and possibly even more important, when it comes to health-related incidents, such as epileptic seizures.
Epilepsy is a neurologic disorder characterized by unpredictable seizures caused by imbalanced electrical brain activity. According to the Epilepsy Foundation, 1 in 26 people in the United States will develop epilepsy at some point in their lifetime. Seizures can be either a petit mal or a grand mal. A petit mal is a mild seizure marked by diminished awareness. For example, it can cause someone to zone out for a minute. A grand mal is a seizure that is marked by loss of consciousness including muscle contractions and spasms. Individuals experiencing a grand mal while walking could fall on the ground, with their arms outstretched, convulsing uncontrollably for a while. They could hit their head in the fall injuring themselves, or choke during the convulsions.
The good news is that there is a type of seizure warning system that can work for some people and it comes in the form of a service dog. Service dogs are commonly known to assist the blind, but they can help with other health conditions too, in particular with epileptic seizures. A service dog can sometimes be the difference between life and death for a person who experiences a seizure. When alerted right before a seizure, the owner can take proper measures to take care of themselves and be safe, such as lying on the ground and calling for help. Thanks to their keen sense of smell, dogs can detect an epileptic seizure before it happens. With proper training, they graduate to be up to the task!
Epilectpic seizures is a relatively new field for service dogs. It wasn’t until 1990, that the U.S. Department of Justice passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 that allowed Service Animals in any public domain and defined that service dogs can be used for other than blindness and deafness. Per the ADA, service animals aren’t required to wear a vest, an ID tag, or a specific harness, but service animal owners agree that it helps to use these devices to provide visual cues to others.
A service dog working in the snow and wearing a colorful vest.
How Do Service Dogs Help with Seizures?
Jeanne didn’t initially use a vest or other identification for her dog, Beatrice, because she wasn’t meant to be a service dog. That part came later. Jeanne, a long-time resident of Berkeley, CA who recently moved to the East Coast, was diagnosed with epilepsy at age 18 and has type 2 diabetes. Jeanne’s seizures are triggered by flickering light, such as sunlight flickering on streets and strobe lights, and extreme stress. The relationship between Jeanne and Beatrice, a tiny and cute white chihuahua, is one of love and mutual help. Beatrice was lucky to have Jeanne rescue her from the dumpster when she was a three-week old puppy, several years ago. Jeanne handfed Beatrice and kept her in her shirt because she was small and frail. Since she got Beatrice, Jeanne always held her in her arms while walking or sitting. After one year, a friend noticed a pattern: Beatrice circled Jeanne’s feet in tight circles, and yipped and nipped at her before she had a seizure. This was Jeanne’s Eureka moment that led her to make Beatrice a service dog and to hire a dog trainer.
Jeanne was relieved to find out that she can get her dog’s assistance. Epileptic individuals often limit going out to places and participating in social activities. In Jeanne’s words, “I didn’t feel free to go take a hike by myself. My life was limited to doing things with people.” When Beatrice alerted Jeanne, Jeanne would stop what she was doing, go to a safe place, get on the ground if possible, and call 911. She would always call 911 because she didn’t know whether the seizure was a petit mal or grand mal. If it was a grand mal, the paramedics would take her to the hospital where she gets the proper care.
Beatrice was able to help Jeanne because of her sharp sense of smell. Dogs can smell scents that humans cannot. It’s a special gift dogs have. Through their superior olfactory abilities, they can detect the body chemicals released when or right before a seizure occurs. Often, owners discover their pets special gift before they train them to become service dogs. By sensing the scents and observing patterns, dogs learn to associate these odors with the seizures. They respond by barking or other behaviors, or they can be trained to respond in specific ways.
A recent study by Catala, A., Grandgeorge, M., Schaff, J. et al. published in Nature Research’s Scientific Reports in March of 2019 proved that dogs can recognize a general epileptic seizure odor. Despite the various types of seizures and individual odors, this study is the first proof that seizures are associated with olfactory characteristics that dogs can sense. The dogs used in the study were already trained to respond to odors of other diseases, such as diabetes. In each trial, they were given odor samples, one of which was for epileptic seizure. The sample seizure odors were taken from five patients who have different types of epilepsy.
Like Beatrice, Jack also learned to detect his owner’s seizures through close contact with his owner. Jack is an Irish Jack Russel who lives with Tracy on a ranch in northern California. Jack is a smart dog. With no formal training, one night, one-year old Jack ran over to the neighbor and barked when Tracy was having a seizure. This is when Tracy discovered Jack’s special ability and decided to turn Jack into a service dog. Jack is now eight years old. Since he was two months old, Jack slept in Tracy’s bed, which helped him bond with her and enabled detection of seizures, most likely through smelling of the released chemicals. When Tracy’s nocturnal seizures are about to happen, Jack performs his duty. He runs to the neighbor and barks until the neighbor comes out. The neighbor then checks on Tracy and calls 911 in case the seizure appears to be critical.
With the help of Jack and her neighbor, Tracy was taken care of. But what is the first aid procedure to go through when someone is having a seizure? According to the Epilepsy Foundation first aid instructions, when someone is having a seizure, he or she should be moved away from harmful objects. If the person is not aware, they should be turned on their side and their airway should not be blocked. If the seizure lasts more than five minutes, or the person has difficulty breathing or it’s their first seizure, someone must call 911.
Seizure first aid handout from the Epilepsy Foundation (source: https://www.epilepsy.com)
Service Dog Training
Although Beatrice and Jack figured things out on their own and the ADA doesn’t require professional dog training, many still opt for it. According to Beverly Ulrich, dog trainer and owner of The Pooch Coach in San Francisco, service dog training is advanced training, beyond regular dog training. Not only does a service dog need to obey basic commands but it also has to be well-behaved in public places and perform specific tasks for its owner. When a dog goes out, it gets distracted by many things: smells, sights, sounds, other animals, and people. A service dog needs to be exposed to those situations and places to get desensitized and not react aggressively.
Beverly training some of her clients dogs
Through training that Beatrice underwent later, she learned to be under full command, not bark at others, be non-disruptive, and hold going to the bathroom. But all work and no play makes Beatrice a dull dog! Luckily she had an “off” command. When Jeanne removed her service vest and said “Time to play”, Beatrice knew to relax and be a dog!
Several dog training organizations mention that the best breed for seizure service dogs is Labrador Retriever. However, based on first-hand accounts from Beverly, Tracy, and Jeanne, any non-aggressive breed (hint: avoid a pitbull), preferably a puppy, that bonds early with its partner can work. Beverly mentioned that it is important not to pick a dog that has aggression issues and has been abused, like rescued adult dogs.
Training is for the human as much as for the dog. Both Tracy and Jeanne had to accompany their dogs at training about twice a week. Jeanne continued training her dog at home every day on her own and estimated the training to have taken up to 20 hours a week.
Training a service dog can be expensive and isn’t covered by health insurance or any disability program. Dog trainer Beverly mentioned that dog training costs vary depending on the amount of training needed. Basic dog training runs on average for about $2,000, but can go up when extensive training is needed, for example to deal with dogs that are aggressive toward humans and other dogs and for service dog training. Tracy started working with Beverly to socialize Jack and help him overcome his aggression, and continued his training in a service dog training facility in Sacramento, which has since closed. The cost for about a year of service dog training in the Sacramento facility was around $13,000. Likewise, Jeanne hired a private dog trainer for a year of service dog training and paid $17,000.
For folks interested in training a service dog, here are some tips. Like Tracy and Jeanne, they can hire a service dog trainer after initial bonding with the dog. Alternatively, they can check out organizations that specialize in training seizure service dogs. These organizations aren’t available in all major cities and often have a waitlist. The Northern California Epilepsy Foundation has more information on service dog training. Assistance Dogs International offers a search of their member organizations by state on their website, some of which offer seizure service dogs. One Ohio-based organization, 4 Paws for Ability, trains dogs for $40,000 and suggests clients to fundraise for part of that fee.
Life with a Service Dog
Before getting a service dog, epileptic folks can be limited from going out to public places. But after getting a service dog, many folks report that they regain their independence, freedom, and quality of life. A service dog opens up doors and possibilities for their partners, and life becomes more fun. In Jeanne’s words, “After having Beatrice, I stopped worrying as much about am I going to die tonight? I might not wake up tomorrow. With B. I could walk out the door like anyone else!” Beatrice sadly passed away last year after suffering from Addison’s disease, but Jeanne cherished the four years of service she had with her.
Similarly, Tracy’s life has been greatly enhanced by the assistance of Jack. In her own words: “My life can go on now. I was afraid to travel at night; now I’m no longer afraid.” Tracy loves traveling and going on cruises. She couldn’t do that in the past, but after having Jack, now she can travel carefree. Tracy takes Jack with her in the airplane. She puts a blue service vest on him, which says seizure alert. In the ship, Tracy would play ball with Jack in the hallway. When Tracy is in cruise ships and hotels, she always informs the front desk that she has seizures and should a seizure happen, Jack will go to the front door and bark. That way, the staff knows what to do to protect Tracy.
Jack accompanying Tracy in the airplane on a recent trip to Ft Myers, Florida
Tracy with her friend and Jack touring Central Park in New York in a pedicab
Is a Service Dog for Everyone?
Service dogs can enhance their partners’ lives in major ways but are they for everyone?
Yes and no. Some people have dog allergies preventing them from having a service dog. For others, there can be hurdles. Service dog training is expensive. The time commitment to participate in the dog’s training is high. And having a dog is a responsibility—you need to take care of your dog, provide food, and veterinary care. But for many, the cost and effort far outweigh the drawbacks.
With more research underway about the olfactory characteristics of epilepsy, a device could be built in the future to help alert for seizures. Not much progress was made until recently due to the belief that the types of epileptic seizures were too individual for a general cue to be found. However, thanks to the research made with the help of dogs, there is hope for new possibilities.
For now, service dogs can be a great solution for alerting and responding to a seizure for some people. Not to mention, great buddies and travel companions too! On a cruise to Alaska, Tracy got to see glaciers and whales, and she got to enjoy the ocean breezes on the boat’s deck. Beside her was Jack, the reason she was able to be there in the first place!
Thanks for the great article, Katie! If anyone wants to contact the author of this report, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org