Seizure Alert

Seizure Alert – dogs trained to aid seizure victims

Stephen Sawicki

Gifted canines can be the first line of defense for their seizure-prone companions.

Close to eight years ago, life dealt Leana Beasley a hand as unfair as it gets. This mother of one was in Panama, where her husband was serving with the U.S. Army, when she slipped and tumbled down a long flight of stairs in their apartment. Her fall ended in a crash onto a box of her husband’s tools at the base of the steps, the top of her head striking the circular blade of a skill saw.

Beasley suffered a brain injury. What followed was an existence that would give even the biblical Job pause. She endured violent–indeed terrifying–convulsive seizures, sometimes a series of them, several times a week. The embarrassment and physical injuries that came with the unpredictable attacks were bad enough. Worse was when strangers tried to help. Operating under the false notion that she might swallow her tongue, one person after another would insert objects in Beasley’s mouth while she seized. Once, she broke a tooth on a spoon. One woman jammed a coin purse into her mouth, nearly suffocating her.

Understandably, Beasley was afraid to venture from home. All the activities she loved–horseback riding, boating, mountain climbing, skiing, even taking a relaxing bath–were now out. Friends would witness a seizure and never call again. Despair set in. Feeling isolated and out of control, Beasley thought suicide was her only answer. “My husband was very worried,” says Beasley, 39. “It got to the point that I felt I was a prisoner in my own body.”

Then, after more than four years of affliction, life for once handed Beasley a gift. Like some of the best gifts, it came in unlikely packaging–this one in the form of Bronson, a fawning rottweiler-German shepherd mix named with a wink after Charles, the tough-guy actor. “I never expected the kind of help that I needed to come front a four-legged individual in a fur coat,” she says with a laugh. “I never thought it was possible.”

Beasley obtained Bronson through a program in Washington State that trains dogs to respond to seizures. The canine aides are trained to roll their unconscious owners over to prevent breathing problems, lie obediently at their side, even summon help.

But Bronson soon showed a special talent: his ability to warn his owner about 20 minutes before the onset of an attack, allowing her to get to a safe place to ride out the storm. Although Bronson and dogs like him are selected for such work because of their sensitivity to changes in their environment–as well as their friendly natures–no one can say for sure what triggers their predictive actions. It is a skill that cannot be taught, only reinforced and augmented with more traditional service-dog training. (Experts stress that people should be leery of would-be trainers who claim otherwise.)

“It’s not extrasensory perception,” says Michael Goehring, program director at the Great Plains Assistance Dogs Foundation in North Dakota. “It’s extraordinary sensory perception.”

Some people believe that the dogs are reacting to the slightest behavioral changes that precede a seizure. Others say the dogs may somehow sense a disruption in the electromagnetic pulses of an epileptic’s brain. The predominant suspicion, however, is that the prodigious canine sense of smell is at work. The dogs could be picking up on what seems to be a change in a person’s odor, the result of neurological and chemical reactions as a seizure develops. Perhaps it is a combination of things.

What is certain is that more training centers are looking for dogs to assist people with seizures. At least 15 groups do so now, and though some provide the dogs gratis, prices can go as high as $15,000. Most of the organizations have been besieged with more requests than they can ever fulfill. (Some 2 million Americans have epilepsy, which encompasses numerous seizure disorders, the bulk of which are managed with medication.) In all, probably no more than a couple hundred service dogs are doing such work. It’s anyone’s guess how many pet dogs without formal training alert to their owner’s seizures.

After a recent in-depth survey of epileptic patients, researchers at the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine report that the alerting phenomenon seems to be for real–at least in a small sample of dogs and owners. They are now seeking funds for a two-year study aimed at scientific confirmation and an explanation of what mechanism the dogs are using. The project would include continuous electroencephalography (EEG) and video monitoring of patients and their dogs.

The prospect of unraveling such a mystery is exciting. But Deb Dalziel, a research consultant on the Florida project, says the value goes beyond gee-whiz science. “The real phenomenon is that the dogs continue to do it and help improve their people’s quality of life,” she says. “To me, that is the real story.”

A two-time reject, Bronson seems to have been looking for ms niche in life. First someone surrendered him to a shelter. Then the Tacoma County sheriff’s office in Washington selected him as a potential drug-sniffing dog. He flunked out, however, for want of aggressiveness.

He was then passed along to the Prison Pet Partnership Program at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor. The program, founded at the maximum-security prison in 1982, teaches inmates vocational skills–grooming, for example, and service dog training. It also gives shelter dogs a second chance by readying them to work with the physically disabled.

Former director Jeanne Hampl says her program was the first to witness a dog alerting to seizures–an inmate’s–and then to place the animal with a client. That was in 1984. Since then, the program has placed two or three seizure-alert dogs a year. One inmate who suffers from epilepsy has been willing to serve as something of a test case for would-be seizure-alert dogs.

If a dog shows a tendency to alert–by barking, staring, pacing, or other signs of anxiousness–the behavior is rewarded. Then trainers teach the dog to respond appropriately when the seizure strikes: lying down next to the individual, for example, or bracing to provide balance when the person tries to stand.

Beasley applied for a dog from the program when her world seemed darkest. She and her family had returned stateside so Beasley could be near high-level medical care. But her health worsened when she had a seizure, aspirated vomit, and fell into a coma that lasted nearly two months. When she finally emerged, her lungs and heart were permanently ravaged, and now an intermittent paralysis of her right side became more severe, often requiring a wheelchair.

At her first meeting with Bronson, a training session to cover obedience basics, Beasley discovered what a special dog he is. “We were getting ready to leave, and my husband and I noticed that Bronson didn’t want to go back with the inmate,” she recalls. “He kept watching me and kind of stressing out and didn’t want to leave me. We thought, `Hey, he’s bonding really well.'”

Ten minutes later, as they drove across the Gig Harbor Bridge for home, Beasley had a grand mal seizure and was hospitalized. She called Hampl a day or two later to tell her what happened. The director was stunned. “She told me that after we left, Bronson just started spazzing out, that he became really stressed,” Beasley recalls.

“I can’t believe it,” Hampl told her. “This dog is already alerting to you.”

In February 1995, Beasley brought Bronson home for a weekend visit. “It was as a trial,” she says. “But we did so well together and made such a good team that he never went back to the prison. He stayed with me, and I’ve had him ever since.”

It was two years ago, meanwhile, that officials at the University of Florida’s veterinary school were approached by The Able Trust to conduct a study into whether dogs could truly alert to seizures. The Tallahassee-based charity, which helps handicapped individuals become employable, had received inquiries from people seeking such dogs and wanted to know more.

Teaming with physician Basim Uthman, a neurologist, the researchers surveyed patients on multiple topics related to their epilepsy. Fifty-six of the 77 respondents had dogs. Just a handful, at least 3, had credible stories of alerting behavior. Still, an affirmative response of 5 percent was encouraging, especially when closer to 1 percent was expected, says Roger Reep, a professor of physiological sciences at the veterinary school.

Dalziel, meanwhile, visited centers around the country and spoke to numerous trainers and people claiming to have seizure-alert dogs. The researchers found that, in general, the dogs alert within a few minutes of a seizure, although some people say their dogs react 40 minutes, even an hour or more, beforehand. Whether the dogs can better predict any particular type of seizure remains unclear.

No breed appears better suited to alert than others. And while some programs obtain their dogs from breeders, many find the ones they need at shelters. Trainers want dogs that are aroused by even the slightest changes around them and that are often hungry for attention from their owners. Still, a dog-owner bond is not essential for some dogs to seizure alert. Hampl and others speak of dogs who have alerted for people they hardly knew–Bronson with Beasley, for one.

(The University of Florida researchers also have reports of a cat or two who seem to alert to seizures.)

Seizure dogs–whether they alert or simply respond–are unique service dogs because their owners may be unconscious, perhaps for even an hour or more, and are at mortal risk from the seizure alone. Some trainers who believe dogs have no place in such a precarious setting want nothing to do with seizure training. Those who do get involved know that discipline is paramount. “The obedience training on these seizure dogs has to be absolutely flawless,” says Goehring. “There’s no room for mistakes at all.”

That the dogs not be aggressive is critical. The animal must be willing to give way to emergency personnel. (Some pets not trained as assistance dogs, perhaps out of fear, have viciously turned on their seizing owners.)

Socialization and training take up to two years in some programs. Unlike the Washington prison program, most centers lack a seizure-prone individual to test the dogs for alerting, so they concentrate on training the dogs to respond once the seizure begins. Often, after the dogs are placed, they show an aptitude for alerting, too.

Most training is geared to a client’s specific needs. Bronson, for instance, will roll Beasley to her side to prevent aspiration. Some dogs will press against an individual with their bodies, to prevent thrashing. There are dogs that prevent their owners, who may be in a seizure-induced daze, from continuing to walk into traffic. Others carry packs with important phone numbers and medicines.

Dalziel tells of one dog that was trained to find a woman’s husband whenever she had a seizure. “One time she was at a neighbor’s house, and the dog was tied to a tree,” Dalziel says. “She and her neighbors were working in the yard when all of a sudden she had a seizure. Well, that dog broke loose from the tree and ran two houses down the street to get the husband, who unfortunately was not there.”

Not every dog will alert to seizures. At the same time, not all dogs said to do so actually can. “People do have a tendency to embellish things,” says Dalziel. Yet there are cases, such as Bronson, who in the four years that Beasley has owned him has yet to miss a seizure. He did false-alert once, says Beasley’s husband, Harry, with a chuckle. A few years ago the dog started whining and urgently licking at Leana’s hand. The seizure they expected never struck, but a few minutes later an earthquake did.

Sometimes, Bronson actually grasps Leana’s shirt with his teeth, tugging her toward the floor. Other times, he goes to his box and excitedly brings her every plaything, one by one–squeaky toys, balls, stuffed animals, rawhide bones–and piles them into her lap. “This is a very laid back, relaxed dog,” says Harry. “When he starts alerting, there is no doubt that he’s alerting, because he starts to do everything with a massive rush of adrenaline.”

If Beasley is home when Bronson gives warning, she lies on the couch or the living-room floor, surrounds herself with pillows, and awaits the seizure. If Bronson alerts while they are out, Beasley tries to return home. When that’s impossible, she usually stretches out in a restroom, away from crowds.

Margarita Cammermeyer, formerly a clinical nurse specialist in the seizure unit of the VA hospital in Tacoma, says she and other medical personnel have seen Bronson in action more than once. In an informal test, Cammermeyer once hooked up Beasley to an EEG, the normally obedient dog at the patient’s side. As luck would have it, the device soon began to show brain-wave disruptions. Within seconds, the dog broke from his strict down position, frantically licked Beasley’s hand, jumped on the bed, and lay on her as if to hold her down. A seizure ensued. “To me, it appears to be a very real phenomenon,” Cammermeyer says.

“Remarkable” is how Leana’s husband describes the change Bronson has brought to his wife. “It’s hard to say this, but her spirit was crushed,” he says. “Since she’s gotten Bronson, she’s been able to do things like a normal person again. Without fear. Her spirits are way up.”

Leana’s other ailments can be limiting, but in recent years she has returned to outdoors activities, such as hiking and horseback riding–with devoted Bronson trotting alongside. Even better, she can do simple things again. Just shopping without fretting about an unexpected seizure is pure joy. “Every day that I have Bronson, I thank God,” says Leana. “I thank God for the trainers who trained him and the volunteers who worked with him. But most of all, I thank God that I have a new chance at life. And I couldn’t have that without this dog.”


To learn more about service dogs that alert and/or respond to seizures, contact:

* The Delta Society, 289 Perimeter Road East, Renton, WA 98055-1329. Call (800) 869-6898, or e-mail

* The University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine. For survey results, visit For more information, e-mail

* Assistance Dogs International, c/o Canine Partners for Life, 334 Faggs Manor Road, Cochranville, PA 19330; (610) 869-4902.

* International Association of Assistance Dog Partners, P.O. Box 1326, Sterling Heights, MI 48311; 826-3938.

Author Stephen Sawicki contributes frequently to Animals.

COPYRIGHT 1999 Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

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