There are about fifty-million people worldwide who have epilepsy. Sometimes the condition is severe, but many lead mostly normal lives, suffering only occasional seizures. Nevertheless, most people with epilepsy are forbidden from driving automobiles or flying aircraft due to fear that a seizure–no matter how rare–can cause an accident, and the liability lawyers will be set loose. Despite the number of people who suffer epilepsy, however, it seems the public at large cannot be taught how to effectively help a person who has a seizure.
As is too common, when humans are unable or unwilling to care for fellow humans, we find that our canine friends are up to the task. Dogs trained to aid people with epilepsy are rare because they have to be absolutely perfect in their responses and reliability. Not only can these Seizure Response Dogs–or more commonly just called “Seizure Dogs”–help and protect a person during and after a seizure, but sometimes are able to detect when a seizure is about to happen and offer warning.
Dogs have been trained to help people through seizures since the 1970s, but some dogs have done so spontaneously for much longer. On their own, some dogs have been known to lie down beside a person undergoing seizure, or to lick a person’s face until they regain cognition. (Some dogs have been known to panic through their owner’s seizure–even die of the stress.) Trainers began to take advantage of a dog’s tendency to help by training dogs to specific responses. Some dogs are trained to alert people around in the event of a seizure; this is particularly useful in the care of children where the dog can alert other family members of the situation. Dogs can guide a person who has brief episodes of spasms and loss of cognition—known as “absence seizures”—and prevent them from running into things. There are even instances of dogs trained to call 911 on a specialized phone when needed.
The possibility of using trained dogs to warn of an imminent seizure didn’t arise until the mid-1980s when people began to report that their dogs seemed prescient of seizures. At the 1998 National Conference of the Epilepsy Foundation Dr Roger Reep presented the results of a study, which said, “reports of seizure-alerting behavior in dogs should be viewed as credible, but with caution.” One of the most surprising facets of finding that dogs could predict a seizure was that it seemed that without any training the dog would signal that the seizure was coming by barking, whining, pacing, or the usual dog-things; there is at least one instance of a dog bringing his owner pillows, and another where a dog would grab his owner’s pants and pull him to lay on the ground. Dogs trained to help a person in the aftermath of a seizure show these predicting traits more often than dogs without training.
Although there are numerous examples of dogs predicting seizures, no one is really sure how they do it. The theories vary from the idea that patients have unconscious “tells”, like an eyelid flutter or a twitchy finger, to olfactory detection of subtle changes in body chemistry. However they’re doing it, these sensitive dogs have been found to predict seizures with 90% accuracy and reliability, regardless of their owner’s gender, age, race, or type of seizure.
Despite the claims of some trainers, there is no reliable means to train a canine companion to predict–yet. It seems to be the consequence of the relationship between dog and person, and of course the dog’s own temperament. One seeking a helper-dog cannot ever count on the fact that the dog will warn him of future seizures, nevertheless many epileptics who get an aid-dog report a lower occurrence of problems, suffer less stress, and generally feel less vulnerable.