Trained Dogs Sense Seizures, Save Lives

Connie Standley has suffered from seizures, sometimes two a day, ever since a car accident left her with a severe brain injury 14 years ago.

Yet even with this life-threatening condition, Standley feels safe, all thanks to her best friend, Alex. Alex, you see, is her dog.

This 80-pound Bouvier de Flandres is trained as a seizure-response dog who protects Standley during and after her seizures. Alex gets the phone, brings necessary medication and even goes and finds people to help Standley.

But Alex does more than just respond. Somehow, she also alerts Standley before her seizures happen.

"She pushes me and prods me and she gets me into a position where I am laying down," says Standley. "Then she lies right next to me and then when the seizure finally hits, she lays across me."

How Do Dogs Sense Seizures?

It's a phenomena that science has yet to explain.

One of the few people to study seizure-alert dogs is Roger Reep at the University of Florida. Four years ago, Reep, a neuroscientist in the College of Veterinarian Medicine, along with colleague Deb Dalziel, interviewed almost 70 people who had epileptic seizures. Reep and Dalziel found that 5 percent of the respondents had dogs who alerted them in advance of the onset of seizure.

"What I suspect is happening that cues these dogs is a change in the person's body odor that's triggered by nervous system activity," theorizes Reep. Seizures result from electrical disturbances in the brain. "When there's electrical activity going on in the brain that controls the autonomic nervous system, that can affect how your body smells. Dogs have a sense of smell 300 times better than humans."

Accordingly, dogs may smell a change in their owner's body odor that is undetectable to humans before the seizure strikes. What appears to be crucial for this to occur is a tight bond between the owner and the dog.

That bond takes time to develop.

At centers that train dogs to be seizure-response dogs, trainers stress that they cannot train dogs to warn of seizures before they happen.

"There is no way at this point for us to know to what stimuli the dogs are responding," cautions Jennifer Arnold, the director of Canine Assistants in Alpharetta, Ga. "Therefore, it's impossible for us to artificially recreate that in order to train them to actually be able to anticipate onset of an episode."

Trained to Respond

Canine assistants trains dogs to help people with mobility problems and people who suffer from seizures. The dogs begin their training at the age of 2 days and finish 18 months later.

Arnold says that of the dogs she has placed with people who have seizures, she has heard reports that within a year, more than half of them begin to alert their owners before a seizure.

Mike Sapp, of Paws With a Cause in Michigan, reports more conservative numbers. Of his 65 seizure-response dogs, only 12 have gone on to predict seizures. "There are lot of reasons why they might predict, but no one can scientifically say why," explains Sapp. "A lot has to do with the dog's sensitivity and the bond with its owner."

Reep concludes from his study that more research needs to be conducted.

Whatever the scientific explanation, however, Standley is only too happy to have an early warning system in Alex. "Now when I go out, I don't have to worry about falling over or falling down stairs," says Standley. Her dog has allowed her to live a more independent life. "Even though I am alone during the day, I don't have to worry that I am going to have a seizure because I know that I am going to be protected."