Sunday, January 25, 2009

53. Seizure Response (and Alert) Dogs- How are they trained?

While scientists do not yet understand the trigger that dogs recognize to know a seizure is coming, they do know that the foundation of response training is simple: reward a behavior the dog does (pawing, grabbing sleeve, getting agitated in any way, barking, licking etc) while the owner is having a seizure. This is called a conditioned response. A dog trained this way is called a seizure response dog, one that responds to the seizure as it is happening.

A seizure alert dog is able to predict that the seizure is coming. Some dogs appear to have this as a an innate ability while others can develop it. This is not something that can be trained so far as we know today. What may happen over time is the seizure response dog learns to look for smaller and smaller clues (whatever they are) to predict the seizure will happen so they can get rewarded sooner. (An example is a dog that is fed on a regular schedule that starts 'asking' for supper earlier and earlier.) Some dogs can predict seizures up to 45 minutes in advance.
(Source: European Journal of Epilepsy Seizure Brown, Steven W, Dr. & Val Strong 1999)

BC Epilepsy Society defines the difference between the two dogs:

"Alert Dogs – are dogs that sense their owners about to have a seizure and by exhibiting strange behaviour (e.g. running in circles) let the owner know this so they may prepare themselves. They will stay with their owner and perform seizure assist duties as well. They can be trained to go for help as well....


Assist Dogs aka Seizure Response Dogs – gives a sense of security to their owner while having a seizure and perform medical assist duties if necessary..."


from: http://www.bcepilepsy.com/files/PDF/Information_Sheets/Seizure_Response_Dogs.pdf

Of course, training a seizure response dog is more complicated than simple behaviour conditioning. In order to be a valid service dog in BC, the dog need also needs to have all the foundation behaviors, such as basic obedience behaviors, being calm in public, ignoring distractions like food, kids, other dogs, cats, and people plus it is recommended to have at least 3 specially-trained behaviours such as responding to the seizure by providing comfort, getting help, pressing an emergency alarm, dragging harmful objects away from the person as they are having a seizure, carrying information about the handler's medical condition, rolling them over to prevent airway blockages, blocking the person from falling down stairs, helping to re-orient the person as they come out of their seizure, helping the person to stand after a seizure (called bracing), guiding their disoriented person to a predetermined location for help, or reminding their person to take their medication regularly.

Not all dogs seem to be able to predict seizures. Some studies suggest only 10%-15 of dogs can alert to seizures before they occur. Success may depend on the type of seizures the owner  is having. Psychological seizures are induced by stress and epileptic seizures cause a change in the chemistry in the brain. For some seizure suffers, having an alert dog can lead to less frequent seizures. Further research still needs to be done in all these areas.

Even if a service dog does not learn to alert to a seizures, their handler can still benefit from the dog as s/he can stay with the person and comfort them as they recover (by laying beside them), lick them as they re-orient or go get help as the seizure is happening (or the other tasks listed above). Of course, seizure response dogs offer constant emotional support as well.

Is it possible to train your own seizure response dog? Yes, if you have frequent seizures (I.e. your seizures are not being well-controlled by medication, some studies suggest once a month or more) and you have help from a person who can reward the dog while you are having a seizure (or you have regular access to a person who has seizures frequently.)





1 comment:

  1. Interestingly enough, my Seizure Response dog, Lily, is trained to do behaviors following the seizure (the post-ictal state). With the prone, quiet body her cue, she activates the Emergency Call Box and returns to lie beside me until cued to do otherwise. Obviously, I cannot cue until cognizant and conscious. She also is trained to get the dedicated Emergency Telephone. In public, she is trained to stand beside me, circling me until taken by someone who, hopefully, is offering assistance. All 3 of these behaviors are done AFTER the seizure and not during it.

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