Can Dogs Be Trained To Detect Epileptic Seizures? Maybe, Experts Say
Written by: Jorie Green, Staff Editor - VetCentric.com
Deb Dalziel is a scientific researcher, and like most scientists, she tends to be pretty skeptical of theories that have not been proven conclusively.
She was intrigued by the popularly held notion that certain dogs have an ability to detect epileptic seizures before the seizures are evident to humans. An animal lover, dog trainer, and former veterinary technician, Ms. Dalziel found it touching, even, to think that dogs could be their owners’ saviors, and that was why she has been investigating the theory for University of Florida’s veterinary program.
But, she didn’t personally believe in the theory’not until she saw a "seizure alert" dog spring to assistance, right before her very eyes.
At a conference held by the Delta Society, an organization promoting the health benefits animals have for people, Ms. Dalziel was having a conversation with a woman with epilepsy. The woman showed no signs of an impending seizure, but suddenly, her dog began acting strangely, "staring at her intently, engrossed, pushing up against her," Ms. Dalziel said.
Sure enough, within moments, the woman "backed up against the wall and slid down, and got dizzy," she said. The dog stood over the woman, protecting her, for the duration of the episode.
And that was when Ms. Dalziel became convinced that seizure-alert dogs do exist. But from there, the questions multiplied: how do the animals detect seizures? Are dogs possessing certain characteristics better at detecting them than others? And finally: can dogs be trained to use this ability? This last question in particular has proven to be especially difficult.
The scent of a seizure
Since most, if not all, of the evidence that dogs can alert their owners to an impending seizure is anecdotal, not much is known about how canines sense a seizure’s onset. It has been hypothesized that dogs pick up on electrical cues; other theories suggest that dogs smell a particular odor, or are able to notice subtle visual changes that people fail to observe.
Dr. Roger Reep, a physiological sciences professor at the University of Florida who worked with Ms. Dalziel on the study of seizure-alert dogs for the veterinary school, said that of all the theories, it is most plausible that some dogs can smell a seizure coming.
"Dogs are incredibly better at olfactory detection than we are, and in some [anecdotal] reports, the olfactory odor [of a seizure] rises to the threshold of human detection," Dr. Reep said.
He added that patients with epilepsy have reported that their dogs were able to detect seizures from other rooms in the house’behavior that could not, of course, depend upon visual or electrical cues.
As a species, canines are known for their keen sense of smell. But judging from the anecdotal evidence, only a very small percentage of them respond to this "seizure odor" that humans generally do not detect.
As it turns out, the ability to alert humans that a seizure is about to occur may have less to do with sense and more to do with sensibility.
The right "personality"
The University of Florida study conducted by Ms. Dalziel and Dr. Reep surveyed a pool of patients experiencing at least one epileptic seizure per month. Of this pool, 30 owned dogs, and five percent of these 30 individuals "reliably" reported that their dogs demonstrated distinct behavior signifying the onset of a seizure.
"They reported defined and unusual behavior that the dog didn’t usually exhibit," Dr. Reep explained.
Although no relationship was identified between breed, sex, or age, Dr. Reep’s and Ms. Dalziel’s study found two factors to be consistent in all the dogs reported to have alerting behavior: a close bond with the owner, and an "alert" disposition.
Micheal Goehring, executive program director of the Great Plains Assistance Dogs Foundation in Jud, North Dakota, which trains about two seizure alert dogs per year, agrees that dogs need to have a temperament conducive to alerting.
"Every dog can [alert], but not every dog cares to," he said. "They all detect seizures, but not all respond appropriately."
A very "independent" dog, Mr. Goehring said, "may pick up on a seizure, but won’t feel any innate obligation towards helping the person." In contrast, "a super-submissive dog will react very dramatically by stressing and panting, but they are doing that out of concern for themselves, and we don’t want a dog to feel stress every time there’s a seizure," he said.
Dogs that have a "middle-of-the-road cool temperament" make the best alert dogs, Mr. Goehring explained, and Great Plains Assistance runs extensive behavior tests to ensure a calm demeanor before accepting an animal into its training program.
One test is to place the dog, unleashed, in a room with a trainer, and introduce a noise from outside the room. A dog with the appropriate personality will "go part-way towards the direction of the sound and then check back with the trainer, [making] pawing gestures, showing a natural desire to include us in on what he’s picked up on," Mr. Goehring said.
But even if there is a small population of dogs that have the "right" personality, can they necessarily be trained to alert their owners to the onset of a seizure? The answer isn’t clear.
Questioning the trainers
Mr. Goehring is very selective about which dogs he trains for patients with epilepsy. But because, as he admits, there is no hard evidence presently available proving that dogs can be trained to alert, some experts are skeptical about endorsing the work that seizure-alert trainers do.
Neither the Epilepsy Foundation nor the Epilepsy Institute’the two major American organizations devoted to epilepsy treatment and research’recommend that patients seek these dogs from trainers. In a press statement, the Epilepsy Foundation said that "since there is currently no way of knowing what kind of training is needed to develop these skills in dogs, nor even whether it is possible to do so, the Epilepsy Foundation suggests that people should be cautious about purchasing seizure dogs.’"
And Andrea Arzt, assistant director of the Epilepsy Institute, which did a study on this issue through video-monitoring several years ago, conceded that "some dogs may be naturally aware, or born with this ability."
"But even if that is confirmed," she added, "there is no proof that the ability can be acquired through training."
Even some seizure assistance dog trainers question whether dogs can be trained to alert.
Michael Sapp, chief operating officer of Paws With A Cause, a program that places assistance dogs nationally, said that dogs that can detect seizures before their obvious onset are "few and far between."
Therefore, Paws With A Cause does not claim to train seizure-alert dogs’instead, it offers "seizure-response" dogs, or dogs trained to assist epilepsy patients while they are having seizures. Most assistance dog programs offer similar services.
Mr. Sapp did say that a small percentage of Paws’ response dogs demonstrated the ability to detect seizures. Primarily, though, "we have dogs that push life-alert buttons to call the hospitals or neighbors, and dogs that can pick up a cordless phone and bring it to the person having a seizure," he explained.
A helping "paw" in a time of need
Even if there is no hard evidence that dogs can be trained to alert their owners to a seizure onset, the important thing to remember, said Susan Duncan of the Delta Society, is that "having the dog there" during the seizure has its benefits.
"The dog becomes a constant that can be relied upon regardless of where a person is or whether other people are available to be with the person," she said.
Dogs that do appear to have the ability to alert can help their owners to sit or lie down so that they can remain safe during the seizure. But "seizure response" dogs can do some things for patients with epilepsy that are also very valuable, Ms. Duncan said.
"They can get help, help the person to get up safely after the seizure, and prevent unnecessary interference from people who do not know how to respond," she explained. "The calm presence of the dog can assure others that the person’s seizure is not an unexpected event."
Added Ms. Duncan, who has multiple sclerosis and has experienced seizures herself, "It can be comforting for the person to see the familiar dog after the seizure has taken place."