"The service dog gives me an overall sense of security and independence. I am not as afraid to go into a public area where I can be vulnerable."
- Quote from Pawsitivity client, as seen in our independent, third-party Impact Evaluation.
In addition to the seizures, epilepsy affects lives in so many ways. For many, it's not just the seizures that cause suffering, it's also loneliness, frustration, or depression. A service dog won't cure your seizures. But you might be interested in the three ways it can help.
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. Scientists have now proved that the physiology of their handler prior to the onset of a seizure causes 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.
While a dog can smell seizures coming on (see article below) 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 its own (hopefully it will, but it can't be promised), still, handlers report their quality of life improved.
Proof that dogs can smell seizures!
Dogs demonstrate the existence of an epileptic seizure odour in humans Amélie Catala, Marine Grandgeorge, Jean-LucSchaff, Hugo Cousillas, Martine Hausberger & Jennifer Cattet. Scientific Reports, volume 9, Article number: 4103 (2019)
Abstract: "Although different studies have shown that diseases such as breast or lung cancer are associated with specific bodily odours, no study has yet tested the possibility that epileptic seizures may be reflected in an olfactory profile, probably because there is a large variety of seizure types. The question is whether a 'seizure-odour', that would be transversal to individuals and types of seizures, exists. This would be a prerequisite for potential anticipation, either by electronic systems (e.g., e-noses) or trained dogs. The aim of the present study therefore was to test whether trained dogs, as demonstrated for cancer or diabetes, may discriminate a general epileptic seizure odor (different from body odours of the same person in other contexts and common to different persons). The results were very clear: all dogs discriminated the seizure odour. The sensitivity and specificity obtained were amongst the highest shown up to now for discrimination of diseases. This constitutes a first proof that, despite the variety of seizures and individual odours, seizures are associated with olfactory characteristics."
All our dogs undergo behavioral analysis and training to determine their suitability for seizure assistance work. Our standardized selection criteria doesn't soley rely on breeds, but rather is used to select dogs that have qualities such as a calm disposition, responsiveness to humans, initiative, sensitivity to the handler, conﬁdence, ability to tolerate distractions and new situations, lack of hyperactivity, good attitude adaptability, crate 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.
In our experience, we have found that this approach works the best for handlers.