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Service dogs deliver more than affection.
Seizure-alert dogs are more than just pets for those who depend on their dogs to keep them
Safe, and sometimes, save their lives.
Judi Bayly was just 40 in 1992 when her life was turned upside down. A professional dog
groomer living in Bellingham, Bayly started experiencing up to five seizures a month,
whenever a release of electrically charged chemicals caused her brain to short-circuit.
Her one-to-two-minute seizures, caused in part by the pesticides she was exposed to on the job while ridding dogs of fleas, caused her body to contort. She would fall down and lose consciousness. When a seizure happened in public, it was a most embarrassing experience, Bayly said. And even worse, if a seizure struck while she was driving or walking across a street, it could be extremely dangerous.
Those who experience seizures are often unable to sense them in advance and often don’t know afterward that they even had one.
“I stopped working,” said Bayly, who now lives in Amherst, N.H. “I was embarrassed once on a Boston subway, and I did not want it to happen again. I was intimidated about going outside in public.”
Intimidated, that is, until her own dog turned her life around once again. Bayly’s Irish setter Autumn became her lifeline when danger threatened.
In an ironic twist, it was a dog that saved her from seizures that are in part a consequence of her job grooming dogs. Bayly never imagined Autumn would become so much more than just her pet and companion.
BACK IN THE EARLY 1990s when Bayly first started experiencing seizures, she began to notice her dog behaving strangely about five to 10 minutes before the attacks. Her usually normal-behaving dog would walk in a circle around her and act nervous.
“I thought at the time Autumn was sick — that she wanted me to be with her and comfort her,” said Bayly. “It seemed like she was worried and wanted me to stay right there.”
One day, Bayly was on the first floor of her home when Autumn
began barking and continuously running up and down the stairs
to where Bayly’s stepson was on the second floor.
“My dog went and got my stepson Ray and brought him to me,” said Bayly. “At that point, I was having a seizure.”
COULD IT BE AUTUMN sensed Bayly’s impending seizure and was trying to help?
Indeed, Autumn turned out to be a “seizure alert” dog, one of perhaps 200 or fewer in the United States. Experts say any breed of dog has the ability to sense the onset of a seizure in people with epilepsy or other brain malfunctions. Some say cats on rare occasions also have the ability, and there is also a report of a horse capable of sensing an impending seizure.
Experts are unsure how some dogs can sense impending seizures in humans and then warn them about them in advance, especially as the people themselves do not know a seizure is forthcoming.
Some say an odor may emanate from a person’s head just prior to an attack, which humans cannot smell but dogs can; others suspect dogs can sense electrical or chemical changes in the person’s body.
Darlene Sullivan, executive director and founder of Canine Partners for Life in Cochranville, Pa., said a dog’s sense of smell is far superior to that of humans.
Dr. Steven Schachter, associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and former chair of the Epilepsy Foundation of America’s professional advisory board, said, “Before a seizure, some abnormal activity is going on in the brain. It is conceivable that this may result in sweating or some kind of unusual secretion that a dog can perceive by smell.”
These special dogs alert their owners of an oncoming seizure by barking, nudging or licking their owner, or simply by exhibiting unusual or neurotic behavior, said Bayly.
The person about to have the seizure then has time to prepare by getting to a safe or private place. If driving, the sufferer can pull the car over and continue the journey after the seizure passes; if at work he or she can go to a bathroom where others will not witness the seizure.
Knowing about an impending attack gives those who experience seizures a chance for a normal life, to leave home and feel safe, Bayly said.
Autumn died, but with a new seizure-alert dog named Copper, Bayly said she now has the confidence to travel.
“Copper has helped me to get my life back to normal,” said Bayly, with Copper by her side. “I have to continually watch him. And if the dog acts the least bit worried, I stay at home.”
IN ADDITION TO having the ability to warn people of an impending
seizure, some dogs help to end the seizure quicker.
Eighteen-year-old Erin Leth of Quincy has epilepsy and experiences between three and 20 seizures a week. In addition to occasionally warning Erin of a seizure, her purebred, 2-year-old golden retriever named Boggie helps her cope with the seizure, according to Leth’s sister Jill.
Boggie is a specially trained seizure-response dog who licks Erin Leth’s face and nudges her during a seizure. This helps her to think of things other than the seizure, which shortens the length of time it takes for the seizure to pass, Jill Leth said.
Boggie also informs other people that Leth is experiencing a seizure by sometimes barking and running and jumping onto them, said Jill Leth. When the dog occasionally senses a seizure in advance, Boggie will not leave Leth’s side and will make sure someone is always with her.
Very few dogs chosen at random are capable of developing this ability, but chances are good that a service-dog training agency can choose a particular dog that will eventually become a seizure-alert dog. The dogs cannot be trained to alert of an attack, but their response, if they have one, can be developed. But whatever it is that causes these dogs to alert their owners of impending trouble, perhaps good old-fashioned love has something to do with it.
“I love my dog,” said Bayly. “He has given me a bond better than that between a child or a husband.” STORIES BY JOHN PIKE
Those with epilepsy are prone to recurrent seizures.
The brain consists of a vast network of nerve cells. In a lifetime, countless electrical messages are fired between these cells, controlling what people do, feel or think.
In healthy people, the messages travel between nerve cells in an orderly way.
But sometimes without warning, the brain chemistry causes these messages to become scrambled. In an electrical storm, the neurons then fire in bursts and faster than normal. This activity spurs a seizure.
These seizures cause people to black out or experience unusual movements or sensations. It can last from a few seconds to minutes.
Doctors skeptical about seizure-alert dogs
Although there are hundreds, perhaps thousands who attest to the ability of dogs to warn their owners of an impending seizure, most doctors are unaware of the animals’ capability.
“Very few doctors know about seizure-alert dogs,” said Darlene Sullivan, founder of Canine Partners for Life in Cochranville, Pa.
People with epilepsy or other brain malfunctions are often unaware themselves they are about to have a seizure. When a seizure has passed, they often do not realize they just had one. Sullivan said doctors, therefore, do not believe it’s possible for dogs to sense seizures unless they see it for themselves.
“Usually those who have seizures first hear about seizure-alert dogs through the mainstream media or through the Epilepsy Foundation, not through doctors,” said Sullivan.
There are probably fewer than 200 seizure-alert dogs in the United States, said Sullivan.
A very small percentage of dogs chosen randomly become alert dogs she said, but 90 percent of the time her organization is able to choose a dog with the particular characteristics that develops this capability.
Woman’s Irish setter saved her life by calling 911
Seizure alert dogs are part of a larger group of service dogs that provide a host of services for those in need, such as people who are vision or hearing impaired.
Some are attached by rope to a person, and at signs of trouble are trained to sit and stay so the individual does not wander off into a dangerous situation, such as a busy street.
Other service dogs are called response-dogs and are trained to push a lifeline button that alerts medical personnel.
Judi Bayly of Amherst, N.H., has both a seizure-alert dog and a seizure-response dog to assist with her differing ailments.
In 1996, Bayly — who suffers from brain seizures and mixed sleep apnea (a condition that affects respiration) — trained her Irish setter dog Lyric to paw her arm to wake her when an alarm went off indicating a lack of oxygen in her bloodstream while sleeping. Lyric had also been trained to knock the telephone off the hook and press any of the 14 buttons that were all programmed for 911, and bark into the phone.
One time, Bayly failed to respond to Lyric’s pawing because she was unconscious. Lyric dialed 911, and dispatchers heard only the sound of a dog barking, but were able to trace the location of the caller. Medical personnel were then sent to the home and saved Bayly’s life.
A letter to the editor of Boston Metro Newspaper.
Nice to read about seizure-alert dogs.
I am writing about your July 25 cover story on service dogs. It was very nice to see there are dogs out there helping people who have seizures. It is common to see seeing-eye dogs, but reading about seizure-alert and response dogs was really interesting.