Seizure Service Dogs

1 out of 26 people develop epilepsy in their lifetimes. Here is the science and studies about how Service Dogs can help with epilepsy (with or without other disabilities).

Seizure Response Service Dogs

In addition to the seizures, what do you find to be the worst parts about having epilepsy? 

Are you perhaps suffering because of the long-term lack of driving, or maybe it's the cost (or side effects) of treatment? Or perhaps you feel loneliness, or depression, or frustration? Or may lost wages are a peoblem? For many, it's not just the seizures that cause them suffering, it's also the impact that epilepsy has on their lives in other ways.

A Service Dog won't cure your seizures. But you might be interested in the ways it can help.

Testimonials

Quotes from study participants about their Service Dogs who helped them with seizure response, from a 2008 study[4]: 

  • ‘‘I am no longer afraid of going out and being taken advantage of.”

  • ‘‘He is my security blanket.”

  • "He brought me out of my shell.”

  • ‘‘I didn’t have any quality of life before my Seizure Response Dog. I was  locked up in my apartment for more than 2 years, too afraid and embarrassed to interact with other people, but I have overcome this thanks to her.”

  • ‘‘I didn’t care about life before my Seizure Response Dog, I just went through the motions. But it was like a light turning on and that she cared for me while I had the responsibility to care for her changed my life.”

  • ‘‘I am a much happier person and no longer take medication for depression.” 

  • ‘I used to rely on others to help me but now I go anywhere with my Seizure Response Dog and feel safe and confident.”

  • ‘‘I was always told not to go out alone because I had many accidents with my wheelchair but now my Seizure Response Dog helps me and I don’t hesitate to go anywhere.”

  • ‘‘My Seizure Response Dog has empowered me; I am motivated to do more and feel like  I can do anything.”

  • ‘‘Having a Seizure Response Dog has changed people’s perception of me. It has legitimized my condition (and) helped people understand epilepsy.”

  • ‘‘My Seizure Response Dog allows me to trust more in myself and I am less afraid to leave my apartment.”

  • "My Service Response Dog has improved my relationship and communication with my partner who always worried about me.”  

  • ‘‘My family shares the confidence and security I do with my Service Response Dog and they worry about me less."

Pawsitivity trains Seizure Response Service Dogs to help with people with epilepsy in three ways:

  • The dogs are trained to respond to seizures; when their handler has a seizure, the dogs can alert others, protect the person, and help them as they recover from the seizure. 

  • In many cases, seizure response dogs then, on their own, develop the ability to alert to seizures before the seizure actually occur. Some scientists think the change in the physiology of their handler prior to the onset of a seizure may cause the handler to smell differently to the dog.

  • In addition to the added safety of having the dogs alert and/or respond to seizures, new studies show that the quality of life of the handler is greatly improved by the presence of the dog. 

Other results of this 2008 study:

  • All participants in the study reported quality of life improvements (82% said major improvement, 19% said moderate improvement) as a direct result of their service dog. These benefits included: Spontaneous alerting behavior developed in 59% of the service dogs, evolving over months of ownership. Intense staring was most common reaction, and other alerting behaviors were close attachment, sniffing, barking/whimpering,  jumping, licking, or even physically prevented their owners from leaving the house prior to seizures. The average alert time 31 minutes before the seizure. The handlers reported:

    • Better mood

    • Decreased feelings of anxiety

    • Better interpersonal relationships, both with family and friends and with strangers

    • Improvements at work/education

    • More self-confidence

    • More independence

    • More safety and security

  • Even in the other 41% of service dogs who didn't develop alerting behavior, however, the handler's quality of life still greatly improved.

  • Added benefit: 45% of handlers of the service dogs reported decreased frequency,  intensity/severity, or duration of the seizures

The Science

While science knows that some dogs can predict seizures (see quotes below), they don't know how. One theory is that the dog is detecting microtremors, while others postulate that dog's sense of smell tells them that a seizure is coming on, and thus the dog knows up to twenty to thirty minutes ahead of time.

Because a dog's primary form of communication is body language and facial expressions, it is plausible that a seizure-alerting dog is cued by the patient's most minute gestures or posturing. However, with report of dogs being out of sight of their handler and then suddenly approaching them and alerting, one has to consider the possibility of a scent, auditory cue, or some other signal independent of visual cues. It seems possible that any one or combination of these senses play an important part in alerting behavior.[1]

If the dog is bonded to the person, they may indicate that a seizure is coming on by acting distressed. By encouraging this behavior, the dog may alert the handler or their family of the upcoming seizure.

"59% of dogs trained to respond to seizures subsequently developed the skill to recognize seizures in advance."[2]

A Service Dog would improve the quality of life, as the unpredictable nature of the seizures would be lessened.[3]

Xander and his man at workHope, Love, Cure

Our Approach

At Pawsitivity, we believe that most, if not all, dogs can smell the seizures coming on, but because they know so far in advance, it can be difficult to reliably reward any behavior indicating that the seizure is coming on. There are a few Service Dog organizations who require handlers to go off their medication for months in order to have multiple seizures, and then they train the dog to alert to a cue (by using cotton balls infused with the saliva of the handler, which had been taken immediately after their seizure). We believe that the problems with this approach outweigh the benefits because every time someone has a seizure, they get permanent damage to their brain. While that approach certainly works in other organizations, for us, though, we believe that it is not worth it to ask handlers to go off their medication in an attempt to train the dog to alert. Thus, we focus on training the dog for seizure response, set up protocols to bond the dog to the handler, and then even if the dog doesn't alert on it's own (hopefully it will, but it can't be promised), still, literally 100% of the handlers reported their quality of life improved (see studies below). 

homergrocerystore2.jpg.

Note: Another study[5] examined whether people with epilepsy could simply rely on pet dogs to alert before or during seizures instead of specially trained therapy dogs. The report concluded not only that pets are not equipped to do the job of a service response dog, but also that the demands of the task might actually be harmful for the pet dog:
  • Most of the pet dogs suffered significant adverse health effects as a result of spontaneously reacting to, or anticipating, epileptic seizures in their human owners. These included three cases in which the dog died.

  • However, when (non-pet) dogs have been specially trained as Seizure Alert Dogs, these adverse effects have not been seen.

Dog Selection

All our dogs undergo behavioral analysis and training to determine their suitability for seizure assistance work. Our standardized selection criteria used to select dogs include a calm disposition, responsiveness to humans, initiative, chase instinct, sensitivity to handler, confidence, ability to tolerate distractions, lack of hyperactivity, good attitude adaptability, crate/kennel livability, plus a complete veterinary evaluation. 

Again - we don't ask handlers to stop taking their medication in order for us to train the dogs to alert to seizures (the hope is that with our training they will become intensely focused on the handler and then they develop that ability on their own), thus we train them to be very attentive to their handler and to respond to seizures.

[1] "Seizure-Alert Dogs: A Review and Preliminary Study", Seizure - Volume 12, Issue 2, March 2003, Pages 115-120, Dalzierl, Uthman, McGorray, & Reep, 2003.

[2] "Seizure Response Dogs: Evaluation of a Formal Training Program", October 2008. A. Kirton, A. Winter, E. Wirrell, and O.C. Snead.

[3] "Neurology" magazine, Kirton A, Wirrell E, Zhang J, et al., Alberta Children’s Hospital's Division of Pediatric Neurology, 2004 and 2005.

[4] Seizure Response Dogs: Evaluation of a Formal Training Program. Kirton A, Winter A, Wirrell E, Snead OC.

[5] Should People With Epilepsy Have Untrained Dogs As Pets? V Strong, S W Brown, Chapeltown, Sheffield, UK.

 

WHAT IS YOUR NEXT STEP?

Read our FAQ

While we don't have a trained dog available right now, we open up the application process about twice a year. Note that the dog is not free, you have to fundraise (or donate) up to half the cost. See our F.A.Q. for details.

Get Updates