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  • How are seizure alert service dogs trained?


    A study in Canada showed that 15% of all dogs naturally alert.

    Alerting cannot be formally trained, with a single exception. The problem is that in order to be able to teach a dog to signal something, the trainer must be able to control or at least identify that which the dog is to signal.

    No one knows for sure what it is the dogs are sensing that tells them a seizure is coming. Most people think it is a scent caused by biochemical changes in the person's circulatory system. Though many studies have been performed to identify what they are sensing, no one yet has conclusively determined what it is.

    We know that cells in the brain fire all the time. A seizure is simply an electrical storm in the brain; uncontrolled electrical firing. So whatever it is the dog is sensing is perceivable all the time, but in varying degrees. Certain levels are normal, certain levels (or a change in levels) indicate a seizure is coming, and there are certain other levels during the seizure itself.

    Drug dogs are trained to do an all-or-nothing signal. Either the drug is there, or it is not. They don't have to discriminate between signaling for 2 grams but not 1. They just signal any time they sense it.

    Seizure alert dogs have to be able to distinguish what is in the normal range and what is in the abnormal range. We humans don't have the ability to identify that point so we can teach them to look for it, as we can with drug dogs where it is all or nothing. Therefore seizure alert dogs cannot be trained the same way drug detection dogs or cancer detection dogs can.

    The single exception to training a dog to seizure alert is to use an existing alert dog to let you know when it is time to cue and reinforce the trainee. A friend and I performed an informal experiment on this concept with two trainees. I trained one and she the other.

    What we learned was that though it was possible to teach a dog to alert in this manner, it was very difficult. The trainee preferred to defer to the experienced dog when possible. The trainee, even in the absence of the experienced dog only had about half the lead (warning) time of the dog who alerted naturally. We also discovered that natural alerters will alert for more than one person, including strangers and will alert for more than one condition, but that conditioned alerters will only alert for one condition in one person.

    For example, my seizure alert dog also alerts for hyper and hypo thyroid (I have neither, but have friends with each), low blood sugar, migraines and low medication levels. My trainee did only seizures, and only for me. The same was true of my friend's dogs.

    My friend continued with her trainee, putting her into full service at the completion of training. I tapered off on reinforcing my trainee because I was not satisfied with the difference between her and my working dog who was young and had years of working life ahead of him. My friend's regular dog had to retire early after being shot (he never recovered emotionally), so she had no other choice.

    My trainee quickly lost the ability in the absence of regular reinforcement. My natural alerter needs only an acknowledgment that his alert is recognized and he'll continue to exhibit the behavior time and time again.

    There are also seizure response dogs. Alert dogs are also taught response tasks. So some dogs are alert and response (sometimes abbreviated "alert") and some are response only.

    Trained responses might include positioning the person for vomiting, clearing the airway, positioning the person for opening the airway to optimize air exchange, moving objects away from the person to prevent injury, blocking the person from falling down stairs, or with partial seizures restraining a limb to prevent injury.

    After the seizure, a seizure response dog might help the handler with orientation, finding a person or location on command, going or calling for help, with thermostasis, or by steadying them as they climb back to their feet.

    There are many other possibilities for tasks for seizure alert and or response dogs.

    They are taught basic obedience and public access skills the same as any other service dog. The response work is taught the same as similar tasks are taught to other kinds of service dogs. For example, guiding to a location by name is a very common guide dog task and steadying a person is a common task for people with balance issues.

    Some studies have shown that seizure response dogs often develop the ability to alert to seizures within six months of placement with a person who has frequent seizures. The rate is estimated at about 50 percent. My own hypothesis as to why the incidence is higher in service dogs than in the general dog population is that service dogs are selected for specific personality traits, including a particular kind of attentiveness to their handler, work ethic, and problem solving. All of these are factors in a dog's ability to alert.

    Some people mistakenly believe a dog can be taught to seizure alert by exposing the dog to a person's underwear they wore during a seizure or by exposing a dog to a person during or immediately after a seizure. Neither of these will teach the dog where that line is between normal and approaching a seizure because both situations simply have an excess of whatever the stimulus is, not the specific concentration or amount that we want them to detect.

    It is true that exposure methods can appear to work, but it is because without exposure to a person with seizures a dog never has the opportunity to develop the behavior naturally or to exhibit it. The exposure allows alerting to develop in those dogs who already have all of the personality pieces needed to be an alerter–it doesn't give them the skill itself.


    I have a seizure dog!!

    Okay, a seizure dog falls into many categories….

    They can be proactive, and do things like jump up and down and bark when they sense the onset of a seizure…

    they can (in some cases) call 911 on a special phone if they feel that this is happening…

    They can assist in the person's recovery, by helping them to get up from the floor (my dog does this) or just for comfort after the event…

    In short, there are no set "rules" for what a seizure dog should actually do for work…

    If you have a seizure issue, and a dog, or are thinking about a dog…

    you need to contact a specialist dog trainer in your area… Sure you can do 99.9% of the work in continuing the dog's training yourself, but you have to tell the trainer what kind of thing you are trying to do, ask him/her to assess the dog and see what might be possible…

    And then, after the trainer gives you a few things to work on, go home with your dog, and practice, practice, practice…

    your first telephone call, should be to your local seeing eye dog group or kennel (the local pound MAY be able to help you) then ask them who they know does specialist assistance dog training, and if they have a good reputation…

    Then make the call, and have a short consultation…

    I certainly hope that someone gets a furry defender/assistant very soon…

    Hope that helps :)


    By and large you cannot train a dog to predict seizures, the dogs either have it or they don't, but if they are going to be used for public access, then they definately have to have their alert behaviour shaped into a socially acceptable one, likely standing on your foot, pawing at your leg, nose nudging and the like, similar to hearing dog tasks. It is not acceptable for dog to bark and jump up and down in public places, even if it is alerting you, and businesses have a legal right to ask you to take your dog out if he does do such things.

    Proving alerts in court is basically impossible, and so for this, and the persons safety, the dog must also be taught seizure response tasks, like clearing the airway, moving a person onto their side, moving objects out of their way, getting help, and leading a person home after a seizure. It is these tasks which make a dog a service dog along with extensive obedience and public access training.

    The person must also be disabled by their seizures and this would usually require at least one seizure a week, which has not been able to be controlled by medication.

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