Service dogs trained to alert to the oncoming seizures of their owners are amazing, lifesaving companions. The lives of individuals with seizure disorders are often altered and disrupted due to their condition. It can make living independently or traveling alone difficult or even impossible. The addition of a dog who can sense and make its owner aware of an impending seizure can bring entirely new possibilities and confidence to their activities and daily life.
How can a dog alerting to a seizure benefit its owner?
When a dog who is capable of such an alert or warning enters the life of someone struggling with a seizure disorder, it is possible for them to take preventative medications before the seizure begins, get into a safe position, or make a loved one aware of the oncoming seizure. Thus, the seizure alert service dog has aided their owner in avoiding a bad fall or possibly even stopping the seizure with medication before it could begin.
After or during the event of a seizure, the service dog can continue to provide support through seizure assistance tasks. Tasks such as these include retrieving a medical bag, rolling the individual over and clearing their airway during asphyxiation, providing stabilization after the seizure, pushing a medical alert button, and more.
Seizure Alert Training
It is important to understand that dogs may not be able to be trained to alert to all types of seizures. In order to train a seizure alert dog to alert to a seizure, there must be unique visual, physical, or audible cues that can be imitated during training. Grand Mal, myoclonic, clonic, and tonic seizures, as well as other less common types are among those with symptoms which are most easily mimicked. Atonic and absence seizures most often do not result in physical or audible body reactions; their latency gives us a much lower success rate.
The training process includes exposing the seizure alert dog to the symptoms of the seizure and shaping his or her behavior to a final indication, whether it be a bark alert, paw alert, or other preferred method of signaling. The mimicked symptoms become the cue for the dog to perform his or her desired behavior, and the dog is rewarded each time he or she successfully executes the behavior. This training session is then practiced in a large variety of environments and amongst many distractions so the dog’s behavior is solid and it responds in any situation.
It is also important to understand the process of training a dog to alert to a seizure and how it works. There is an approximate 10-20% chance a dog will naturally pick up on a seizure beforehand without any training whatsoever. If the physical activity of a seizure can be mimicked and used as a cue by a dog trainer, the chance of a dog alerting to a seizure beforehand grows to about 60-80%. This means the seizures a person has needs to involve some type of movement such as full body twitching, leg movement, arm shaking, etc. We train the dog to give its alert when it sees that physical cue. For example, if the dog’s alert is to bark, we train it to bark whenever we make those seizure movements.
Now, as trainers, that is as far as we can go. We deliver the service dog and teach the family how to continue and maintain the dog’s training. It is up to the family to practice the seizure alert response. They must set up scenarios where the person acts as if they are having a seizure and the dog is rewarded for giving its alert. At this point, you have a dog that only gives an alert while the person is actively having a seizure. The dog does not yet understand what to be aware of before a seizure happens therefore it will not alert ahead of time. This is the most important aspect of the training and it is up to the family to teach. While the person has a true seizure, someone must work with the dog on its alert. A person must have seizures with the dog around and have someone to help them train the dog during that time in order for the dog to begin picking up on the unseen activity that happens before a person has a seizure. We know that certain bodily processes happen such as a specific scent the body gives off prior to a seizure. These signs are unseen by us and we are unaware of them, however, it is possible for a dog to pick up on them especially with some training.