Updated: Jul 28, 2020
Seizure Alert Dogs are trained to alert their person (or caregiver) by anticipating the onset of a seizure. While these dogs are highly trained, in about 20% of cases of shelter dogs or pet dogs, they can learn to anticipate a seizure even without extensive training. The issue here is that the person needs to recognize when their dog is signaling this warning.
It is not easy to train a seizure alert dog. It is a very specialized training. Seizure response and seizure alert are distinct skills. A seizure alert dog will anticipate the onset of a seizure and alert the person or caregiver.
Seizure response dogs will help the person during or after they have had a seizure. According to the Paws with a Cause website:
Seizure Response Dogs are custom-trained to assist people who have epilepsy or other seizure disorders with tasks such as activating a life-alert system, finding someone to help, retrieving a phone or stimulating a person during a seizure. As a person recovers from a seizure, a PAWS Dog can retrieve medications or food, act as a brace to help them up and provide comfort. 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.
On the other hand, Seizure Alert Dogs are trained to work with people who have frequent seizures, and to anticipate their occurrence. The dog is trained first to anticipate and then give an Alert Signal that the person is about to have a seizure. This allows them to lie down, alert others, call for help, and take protective actions.
Another organization that trains dogs for both autism and seizure alert is 4 Paws for Ability. Interestingly, dogs with no training, even shelter dogs, who live with people with seizures, in about 20% of the cases, may learn to alert. Dogs with proper training can have a very high rate of alert for an oncoming seizure. 4 Paws website states: "The one thing scientists have been able to come to an agreement on is that the dog smells a chemical body change on the person just prior to and during a seizure."
A seizure alert dog will signal to let the client or other adults know that a seizure is coming. They have been known to gently push a child down if the child is ignoring the alert. In some cases, the dogs are trained to call 911 with a special device for that purpose.
But in addition to the physical benefits of being alerted to an oncoming seizure, the emotional support is significant. Some parents have reported that their children have had fewer seizures since the dogs entered their homes, perhaps because of a reduction in stress levels, and from the comfort they find in their new companions. As 4 Paws Ability explains the many values of a seizure alert dog:
"Sometimes, the child who has extensive seizures must wear a helmet to protect from falls when playing on the playground. Or while playing with the neighborhood kids, or during school recess. These events could, and often do, lead to isolation. The children who lack an understanding of the child’s “difference” from them often avoid the child who experiences seizures. Even young children that do have friends may find themselves left behind by their peers as they get older if the seizures limit their activities or result in cognitive delays."
Service Dogs Help Counteract Isolation
Most children are interested and curious about dogs. Having a dog helps to create miracles that occur when children with disabilities enter the playgrounds with their service dogs. The service dog breaks the ice. Children will come to pet the dog, and in doing so, there is an opportunity to get to know the child and understand her disability rather than avoiding her.
Genie Joseph, PhD
Director: The Human-Animal Connection