Seizure Dogs: Predicting Seizures
January 2, 1998
Over the last couple of years, there have been numerous articles and television exposes about what are called Seizure Detection Dogs or Seizure Alert Dogs. Since the media hype has run regularly, I have asked myself numerous questions as to why, other than it's great press coverage, would an organization use this type of PR? Maybe they need to boost their donations.
Back in 1987, a young single mother approached our agency to help train a dog that would help her when she had a seizure. She had both grand mal and petite mal seizures. Shortly after the birth of her first child, she fell down a flight of stairs and broke her hip while having a seizure. Medication could not control her seizure disorder. Over the next seven years after placing a dog with her, he never predicted seizures, but boy he did do the tasks for which he was trained. A Police Officer told me about the time they had been called to the woman's house through her Life Alert, and her dog was next to her when they arrived. His first thought was am I going to have to shoot the dog if he becomes protective; because the first concern is the patient. The area she lived in had several kennels and breeders that were very big into dog fighting. I was giving the police officers a one day presentation about how to deal with Assistance Dogs when someone is hurt and in need of medical attention.
In my opinion alerting before a seizure is a smoke and mirror image for the person with a seizure disorder and or their family. Many times people cannot be left alone because their seizures could be life threatening. To give someone a false hope that they can now rely on this dog to tell him or her when a seizure is coming is at best unethical.
We recently had a client that received a dog after having three seizures a day for 40 years. When he went home with his new dog, he did not have a seizure for 5 weeks. We could have called a press conference and said look at this. He is CURED . . .. Did we cure him of his seizure disorder? I doubt it, but boy it would have made good press.
Every dog that comes in to our program is tested for Seizure Response work. We also test all of the puppies that we breed at 7 weeks of age. Last year out of the 385 dogs and 107 puppies that we tested, only ten had the qualities we are looking for in a Seizure Response Dog. Thus, about 2% of the dogs entering our program had the necessary qualities for this type of dog.
Over the last 11 years we have trained and placed 28 Seizure Response Dogs. They function in different ways for each person. Only five of the 28 dogs have, after several years of working with their owners, began to alert them prior to a seizure. This is less than 1 in 4 dogs, but also remember that only about 2% of the dogs entering our program have the necessary qualities for this type of dog. Another factor about PREDICTIONS also needs to be considered. When the client changes medications, it can change their personality and other behaviors that the dog may use as cues. This has happened several times in our program, and it has taken many months for the dog to adjust to their new behaviors.
Much of the limited material I have seen on alerting to a seizure before it happens has been antidotal or questionable at best. Most has been on dogs that have been owned for several years prior to them alerting to a seizure. They all have been with their owners for several years and through many seizures prior to them responding with any reliability.
The most credible study I have read came out of England, and I do not remember reading that any of the dogs were trained for their seizure alert work.
If a trainer or program tells you that they can provide you with a dog that detects seizures prior to the occurrence, I would be very cautious about these claims. To the best of my knowledge there may be at best 60 Seizure Response Dogs trained in the country and the data about how many of them predict seizures is not available. I would ask to talk to some of the people that have dogs from this source. One thing to remember is they are likely to refer you to their best candidates. Get as many of the questions you have answered as possible, then make the decision of whether this is for you.
In all of the clients we have trained dogs for, there have yet to be two who have the need for their dog to accomplish the same tasks for them. Yes they all have seizures, but they are different in the manner in which their seizures occur or in the severity of the seizure or what triggers them, from stress, certain foods cooking to patterns on floors, carpeting or TV.
I do feel that training the right dog to assist a person when they are having a seizure could escalate the dog's capabilities in detecting seizures. To claim this, however, is a disservice to the client and the program. We never tell anyone this. In fact, we state that, if for some reason this happens with you it will be a bonus, but not to expect it or think that it will happen.
The intent of this letter is to stimulate thought for people with seizure disorders, not start a controversy. My past experience, however, suggests that someone will take this negatively. When and if those individuals have trained as many dogs as we have come forward, then I would love to debate the issue.
If this article helps one person stop and think that instead of wanting a dog to predict seizures they want a dog that can help them through a seizure and give them the independence of not having to have a human with them 24 hours each and every day, then the article has accomplished what I intended it to.
While writing this article, I received a phone call from a man with seizure disorder that paid $2,600 for a 6 month old, trained, Doberman Seizure Alert Dog (ID card included). The dog at 7 1/2 months is now becoming very protective and growling at people that attempt to pet him in public and when someone comes to his home. The dog has supposedly had 150 hours of Service Dog work and 50 hours of obedience work completed before he went to this gentleman at the ripe old age of 6 months. But his basic obedience commands are less than appropriate and he pulls on the leash when walking, he will come when called only if he wants to.
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