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Dogs That Can Foretell Their Owners' Seizures

By: Stephen Sawicki

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Close to eight years ago, life dealt Leana Beasley an unfair hand. She was in Panama where her husband was serving in the U.S. Army, when she suffered a brain injury after she slipped and tumbled down a long flight of stairs in their apartment.

For the next four years she suffered terrifying seizures – sometimes a series of them several times a week. They put an end to the life she loved: horseback riding, boating, mountain climbing, skiing, even taking a relaxing bath – all were out of the question. The 41-year-old mother retreated steadily into herself. "My husband was very worried," she says. "It got to the point that I felt I was a prisoner in my own body."

Finally, Beasley found new hope. It came in the form of Bronson, a Rottweiler-German shepherd trained to respond to seizures. "I never expected the kind of help that I needed would come from a four-legged animal in a fur coat," says Beasley. "I never thought it was possible."

Dogs like Bronson are trained to help in several ways. They can roll an unconscious owner over (to prevent breathing problems) or lie obediently at their side or even summon help. But Bronson shows a special talent: He warns Leana about 20 minutes before the onset of one of her seizures, allowing her to get to a safe place before the seizure actually starts.

How Do They Do It?

Although Bronson and dogs like him are selected for such work because of their friendly natures as well as their sensitivity to changes in environment, no one can say for sure what triggers their predictions. Theirs is a skill that cannot be taught – only reinforced and augmented with traditional service-dog training – and would-be trainers who claim otherwise are suspect. "It's not extra-sensory perception," says Michael Goehring, program director of the Great Plains Assistance Dogs Foundation in North Dakota. "It's extraordinary sensory perception."

Some people believe that the dogs react to slight behavioral changes that precede a seizure. Others say they 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 may be picking up on a change in a person's odor, as a result of neurological and chemical reactions that are taking place as a seizure develops.

More Dogs Needed for Training

Beasley hooked up with Bronson through the Prison Pet Partnership at the Washington Corrections Center for Women, which trained the dogs. (Unfortunately, the center is not training any new dogs). Although there are 15 such programs nationwide, in all, probably no more than 200 dogs are available for this service – and many more are needed. Though some groups provide the dogs for free, prices for them can go as high as $15,000. Most of the organizations have been besieged with more requests than they can fill.

Finding a Dog

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

  • Delta Society, 289 Perimeter Rd. East, Renton, Wash. 98055-1329; phone: 1-800-869-6898.

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

  • International Association of Assistance Dog Partners, PO Box 1326, Sterling Heights, Mich. 48311; (810) 826-3938.

  • Great Plains Assistance Dog Foundation, PO Box 513, Jud, N.D. 58454.

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