During a seizure, abnormal brain firing causes changes in attention or behavior. Many seizures cause uncontrollable, rapid shaking called convulsions. Seizures have many causes, but the most common condition in which a person experiences ongoing seizures is called epilepsy. Individuals with epilepsy can take medication to manage their conditions, but the risk of seizures can still pose limits to daily life.
Since the 1990s, dogs have been trained to support people with epilepsy in two significant ways: warning owners about an impending seizure, and responding to the crisis when it occurs in order to minimize harm and call for help. Though there is some controversy surrounding the capabilities of seizure alert dogs and who should use them, there is ample evidence to support that dogs are invaluable for people who experience seizures.
This article outlines the history and research surrounding seizure support dogs, the types of tasks they can perform, the training and certification process involved, and a list of resources for seeking your own seizure support dog.
History and Research Supporting Assistance Dogs
In the 1860s, Florence Nightingale found animal companionship beneficial to her patients. Since then, dogs have been used in many capacities to help people recover from and manage illness, disability, and other conditions. Guide animals have been referred to in literature and art throughout history, but training schools for service animals first became popularized in Germany in the wake of World War I. Soon after, other countries such as Switzerland, Great Britain, and the United States followed suit. Many of the service dogs who came out of these training programs were paired with veterans, particularly after World War II when rising demand led to many more training schools being opened around the country.
Decades of research support the use of service dogs in assisting individuals with physical disabilities. In recent decades, they have become popular companions for people with less visible ailments, such as mental illness, developmental disorders, and chronic pain. Any dog can boost key neurotransmitters like dopamine, oxytocin, endorphins, and serotonin, all of which are “essential to our sense of well-being.”
Trained service animals are able to go much further with the aid they provide. Extensive research shows how effective they can be in helping people with disabilities achieve greater independence, require less assistance from other people, and improve functioning in many areas–including physical, emotional, social, and economic.
Seizure alert dogs provide a fascinating current area of research for scientists. Because the mechanism of detection is not understood, there is debate about whether dogs can detect epileptic seizures at all–partly because they are not preceded by any warning signs that humans can yet detect. That is why most organizations who train seizure support animals do not make conclusive medical claims about their dogs’ detection abilities. The Epilepsy Foundation warns: “Any claims by trainers that they can produce this type of behavior in a dog should be looked at very carefully, especially when the training is expensive. While some people report success, others have been disappointed. More research is needed to better understand what dogs can and cannot do, whether there are differences between breeds, and how best to develop this unique skill.”
Training and Certification for Seizure Support Dogs
The Foundation for Service Dog Support defines a service dog as “a dog that has been trained to perform tasks to assist an individual with disabilities. It is the ability to perform observable tasks, on command, that distinguishes a service dog from an emotional support dog, therapy dog or other working dogs. Some examples of tasks are balance and support, retrieving dropped objects, fetching medications and summoning assistance when needed.”
Service dogs are full-time companions protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Unlike emotional support dogs or therapy animals, they undergo rigorous training so that they can assist with everyday tasks. Training for a service dog is often in the range of $10,000-$20,000 and can take up to two years. Over this period of time, dogs are taught to be extremely responsive to their owners, to ignore any and all distractions, and to perform specific tasks that will help them to assist their human partner’s specific needs.
When most service dogs are trained, trainers and owners develop the expectation that the dog will consistently provide the needed response, no matter the circumstance. That is the case with many of the tasks seizure support dogs are trained in. However, training dogs to detect seizures is nowhere near an exact science. While there are many hypotheses about how dogs detect seizures, there is no conclusive research, and even a dog who detects most seizures is not likely to catch them all. Therefore, organizations who provide seizure response dogs often offer disclaimers such as the following: “PAWS Seizure Response Dogs are not trained to protect or predict seizure activity. However, after several years with a client, some may develop the ability to alert their owner of an oncoming seizure. This behavior is not guaranteed to develop, nor to be consistent if it does develop.”
It is likely that only a tiny subset of dogs have the capacity to learn how to detect seizures. Canine Paws for Life, a Pennsylvania non-profit, has a low-tech test to determine which dogs are eligible for training: “A local man with epilepsy takes the dog and observes it over a weekend. In the comfort of his own home, he’s able to see if the dog changes its behavior in the minutes leading up to one of his seizures. If it does, it’s a candidate for special training after its initial fostering period.”
Outside the US, it is common for seizure alert dogs to be trained along with their human companion, so that they learn any seizure signals unique to that patient over time. However, most American organizations train the dog separately and then pair them with an epileptic individual. It is difficult, but possible, to learn how to train a dog to detect seizures–but you must keep in mind that many dogs are not capable of acquiring this ability. Furthermore, if a dog does alert a person to an oncoming seizure, it is the human’s responsibility to pay attention to the dog’s warnings and to take appropriate action: sitting down, stabilizing, and so on. A dog who is trained in seizure prediction may or may not also be trained in seizure response.
Whether or not a dog detects seizures in advance, they are trained to respond quickly when they occur. During and after a seizure, the service dog can provide key assistance: drawing attention to get help or calling an emergency number, stimulating the human partner to wake them up after a seizure, keeping the person in a safe position during the convulsions, or removing the patient from an unsafe situation.
Service dogs can carry out many complex tasks, and individuals with epilepsy or other seizure disorders may need assistance even when they’re not having seizures. The International Association of Assistance Dog Partners requires a minimum of 120 hours of training along with a specific list of tasks and requirements. However, people with disabilities have the right to personally train their service dogs, and do not have to go through outside organizations for the training process.
Service dogs are guaranteed right of entry into public establishments, like restaurants, grocery stores, hospitals, medical offices, hotels, and other places of public accommodation–and none of these establishments are permitted to require certification or paperwork to prove a service dog’s legitimacy or status. However, a disruptive or threatening dog may be asked to leave the premises of a business, so it is paramount to provide ongoing training or to seek help if a service dog causes issues in public.
Your service animal becomes a part of your family, much like a pet. However, service animals are not pets; a “no pets” sign on a business cannot legally be applied to your service animal.
Resources for Finding a Care Dog
There are many resources for finding a companion service dog. Additionally, there are many resources to assist those who would like to get a certification for their pet to become a licensed service dog. The following list provides useful information on some of the organizations that can help you in your search. For more information on what is available to you locally, you are encouraged to reach out to your local ASPCA or Humane Society chapter. Local trainers and care providers may be willing to work with you to help subsidize the acquisition of a service animal.
4 Paws for Ability is a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) organization whose mission is to place quality service dogs with children with disabilities and veterans who have lost use of limbs or hearing; help with animal rescue, and educate the public regarding use of service dogs in public places.
Assistance Dogs International is a coalition of not-for-profit assistance dog organizations that helps individuals find a dog to match his or her needs.
Pawsitivity is a nonprofit organization dedicated to rescuing dogs and training them as service dogs.
Paws with a Cause enhances the independence and quality of life for people with disabilities nationally through custom-trained Assistance Dogs. PAWS increases awareness of the rights and roles of Assistance Dog Teams through education and advocacy. They provide seizure response dogs, but do not guarantee the ability to detect seizures.
Service Dogs for America is a non-profit organization that enhances and empowers the lives of individuals with disabilities by providing highly trained assistance dogs and ongoing support to ensure quality partnerships.
Find a list of resources about assistance dogs from the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners. Assistance Dogs International offers a program search to help people around the world find service dog organizations they can work with.