Questions and Answers About Seizure Dogs
What is a seizure dog?
A seizure dog is a dog that has been trained (or has learned), to respond to or warn of an impending seizure in someone who has epilepsy. (Read our original feature story on seizure dogs.)
Is seizure dog the official name?
It's the one that's most often used. Some people distinguish between dogs that respond to someone who is having a seizure (seizure response dog) and dogs that appear to know when a seizure is going to occur (seizure alert dog).
What do seizure dogs do?
A response dog might be trained to bark when a child has a seizure so that family members know what is happening, or might lie next to someone having a seizure to keep them from harm, or might even be trained to activate some kind of pre-programmed device such as a pedal that rings an alarm.
A seizure alert dog might go through a number of actions that are different from its usual activities if it senses that its owner is going to have a seizure. Pawing, running in circles, coming and sitting close by, even barking directly at the person have been reported.
Can any dog do this?
Dogs who are easily trained as companion animals can probably be trained to respond in a certain way during or after someone has a seizure. Only a few dogs seem to be able to sense a seizure before it begins. One researcher has suggested that about 1 in 10 may have this innate ability. Until there is further research there's no way to tell whether some breeds are better at this than others.
How do people teach a dog to recognize a seizure in advance?
One research report describes developing this skill in some dogs by pairing them up with people who have frequent seizures and then giving a reward to the dog every time its human partner has a seizure. After a while, if the dog has the special sense, it will start looking for its reward before the seizure happens, thus warning the individual. Other dogs seem to develop this skill on their own, just by being in the company of an owner who has seizures.
How does a dog know that someone is going to have a seizure?
Nobody knows how the dog is able to detect an oncoming seizure. Some people have suggested that there may be a change in the owner's behavior or scent before a seizure happens and that is what the dogs are responding to, but it's still a mystery.
How can someone get a seizure dog?
It depends what your goals are. If you are looking for a seizure response dog, you can discuss what you want the dog to do and work out a plan with a trainer. Getting a dog with the special skill of recognizing seizures in advance is another matter. 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 further learn what dogs can and cannot do, whether there are differences between breeds, and how best to develop this unique skill. At this time, getting a dog for companionship and seeing whether the skill develops may be the least expensive route to follow, remembering that the only research study that reported on the percentage of dogs with this ability estimated it to be no more than one in ten.
Do dogs have seizures?
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Yes. Like people, some dogs develop epilepsy and experience seizures. They are usually treated with some of the same medicines that people use and can continue to enjoy active lives.