By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 15 January 2012)
A dog trained to help those who suffer from seizures may predict and warn in advance of a seizure (seizure-alert dog), provide assistance during a seizure (seizure-response dog), or both. Training of seizure dogs may take anywhere from 6 months to 2 years, at a cost of $10,000-$25,000, and there are no guarantees of predictive ability (Martin, 11 May 2004). However, although some epileptics have been disappointed with the abilities of their seizure dogs, many have found that having a service dog provides life-changing benefits.
Approximately 2.3 million Americans suffer from epileptic seizures, which may last anywhere from seconds to several minutes, in some cases rendering the sufferer unconscious. Those afflicted with epilepsy often avoid many activities because they fear the embarrassment of having seizures in public or in places that could present danger, such as near a hot stove (Mott, 11 February 2004).
Seizure-alert dogs are service dogs that help those with epilepsy by warning them of impending seizures. This enables the person to take precautions, such as moving to a safe space, taking seizure-blocking medication, or seeking assistance.
Dogs that have shown an ability to predict seizures can alert their owners anywhere from seconds before an attack to 45 minutes or more. They may warn their owners by circling, pawing, barking, whining, licking hands, making close eye contact, or engaging in other atypical behaviours. They may also alert others such as caretakers (Martin, 11 May 2004).
While many dogs can be trained to assist someone having a seizure, according to the BC Epilepsy Society, only about 10% have the ability to predict them in advance. Trainers believe that the breed, gender, and age of a dog have no bearing on how likely it is to develop seizure-predicting ability – some dogs are just gifted.
Dogs that have the innate ability to predict seizures can be trained by pairing them with epileptics and rewarding them when their human partners have seizures. Soon, the dogs begin seeking their reward prior to the seizures, when they sense that one will soon occur. But many dogs develop the ability spontaneously over time as a result of living with an epileptic, without any formal training, and cats have also been known to develop the ability.
It is not known for sure how dogs and cats detect oncoming seizures, though it has been suggested that changes in a person’s scent or behaviour prior to a seizure may alert the animals to an impending attacks.
Although only a relatively small percentage of dogs have the innate ability to predict seizures reliably, many dogs can be trained to provide assistance in the event of a seizure. This assistance may include staying close and watching over an owner, alerting a caretaker, sounding an alarm, or pressing a button to dial 911. If the epileptic also suffers from a disability, the dog can be cross-trained to assist with additional needs.
Untrained dogs may react unpredictably to seizures. Some are even be frightened of them. To be a good seizure-response (also known as seizure-assist) dog, a dog must be amenable to training and responsive to human feelings and body language. A smart, people-oriented dog is a good candidate for training.
Where to Obtain Seizure Dogs
The seizure dog training industry is relatively new and not yet regulated. Experts caution that those seeking seizure dogs should investigate training organizations thoroughly and be wary of those that guarantee seizure-alert abilities. Also, potential adopters of service dogs should be animal lovers who have the physical, emotional, and financial resources to take care of a dog. Charitable organizations may be able to assist with some of the costs for qualifying individuals.
In the U.S., fewer than 20 dog training organizations currently train seizure dogs, though this may increase as demand grows (Martin, 11 May 2004). The following organizations provide information about service dogs and where they can be obtained:
- The Delta Society (U.S.): email@example.com
- Paws With A Cause (U.S.): firstname.lastname@example.org
- Special Skills Dogs of Canada: email@example.com
- Support Dogs (UK): firstname.lastname@example.org
- Assistance Dogs International: email@example.com (Suzi Hall, ADI Coordinator)
For a large list of international resources, visit International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (IAADP).
For more dog articles, see the main Dogs page.
- BC Epilepsy Society. (n.d.). “Seizure Dogs.” BCEpilepsy.com.
- Epilepsy Foundation. (2010). “Seizure Dogs.” EpilepsyFoundation.org.
- Martin, J. (11 May 2004) “Seizure-Alert Dogs – Just the Facts, Hold the Media Hype.” Epilepsy.com.
- Mott, M. (11 February 2004). “Seizure-Alert Dogs Save Humans with Early Warnings.” News.NationalGeographic.com.
- Nash, H., Veterinary Services Department, Drs. Foster & Smith. (2010). “Assistance & Service Dogs.” PetEducation.com.
- Rudy, L. (1995). “Service Dogs for People with Seizure Disorders.” National Service Dog Center Newsletter, 6(4). DeltaSociety.org.
- Schram, T. (15 September 2003). “Where to go to Find a Seizure Alert Dog.” Epilepsy.com.
- Strong, V., Brown, S.W., & Walker, R. (1999) “Seizure-Alert Dogs – Fact or Fiction?” Seizure, 8(1), 62-65.