Seizure Alert Dogs?

While it is reasonably easy to train dogs as seizure-response dogs to run and get help when someone is having a seizure, to have dogs pick up on an impending seizure before it actually happens is a totally different kettle of fish (and one that is somewhat equivocal).  Though there are groups who train seizure-alert dogs and place them with individuals who have seizures, there is no scientific evidence for seizure alert actually working except where brittle diabetics can be alerted by their dog before their blood sugar hits rock bottom and triggers the seizure. In the latter case, the explanation may be that when blood sugar drops below a certain level, metabolism changes producing different odors that dogs can detect.  If the dog is trained to respond to this odor by, say, by nudging a household member, the correct treatment can be implemented and a seizure thus averted.

But here’s a new twist on the old story of seizure-alert dogs, one in which almost behavioral seizures, in the form of “rage” were apparently detected ahead of time by his canine companions.  The dog in question, a Doberman pinscher whose name was Storm, formerly got on well with all his other Doberman housemates. But this amiable situation ended abruptly about two months prior to the owner noting any overt rage episodes. Suddenly the other dogs started giving Storm a wide berth.  His owner, a professional dog trainer, thought he was pulling a power trip, but it turns out they probably knew more about what was going with Storm on than she did at the time.  Storms owner reported the rage episodes, when they finally occurred with a vengeance, as follows: “His behavior before an attack was that he would be sitting just staring out a window, a blank stare, with dilated pupils and then he would turn, look at me briefly, look away and then, a split second later, launch into a full-blown attack.  The attack would last anywhere from thirty to sixty seconds and then he would come out of it, start shaking and appear totally disoriented.  He would then look at me like he was still a baby, as if to say, “What’s wrong?”  The episodes increased to four times a day and his vet put him on Valium® at first and then phenobarbital and, finally, lithium, but nothing seemed to help.

During the very last attack the owner had him muzzled because the episodes were getting worse.  He woke up and came over to her on the couch (she was lying down) and he attacked her without provocation despite being under the full influence of the medication.  She reports that she was never so glad to have had a muzzle on him because with him at face level she could have been seriously injured.  Unfortunately for Storm, there was no future and the vet decided he should be put to sleep as he shouldn’t have to live drugged and muzzled, as that meant essentially he had no life.

Two points emerge from this story.  The first is that there appear to be definite differences between seizure-induced aggression (a.k.a rage) and just nasty old “normal” aggression.  Minimal or no provocation is one of them as is the occurrence of a vicious attack associated with bizarre post ictal signs like shaking, disorientation, or extreme tiredness.

The other lesson from this story is that the other dogs seemed to have alerted to Storm’s pending seizures, both ahead of time and event by event.  Seizure-alert dogs may be able to detect human seizures before they occur and may be able to detect those of other dogs, too.

Though science has yet to catch up with this phenomenon, the truth is out there somewhere and, undoubtedly, will eventually come to light.

Dr. Dodman will be giving a 2-day seminar on dog behavior in Colorado in August. For details and registration, visit his website www.ThePetDocs.com.


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Positively Expert: Nicholas Dodman

Dr. Dodman is one of the world's most noted and celebrated veterinary behaviorists, an acclaimed author of four books, and a regular lecturer. Dr. Dodman has written 5 highly acclaimed books and has authored two textbooks and more than 150 scientific articles and book chapters. He appears regularly on radio and television.


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