Uncanny Canines Sense Oncoming Seizures

For people with epilepsy, seizure-alerting dogs are truly man's best friend

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By E.J. Mundell
HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, Nov. 9, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Four o'clock in the morning a little more than two weeks ago, Cheryl Huey of Monroe, La., felt herself being roused from sleep.

Chelsea, the new 2-year-old female golden retriever that Huey and her teenage son Taylor had just brought home the day before had run from his bedroom to hers and was now agitatedly pawing at her arm.

"I got up and went to Taylor's bedroom and said, 'Hey, looks like we got to take her outside, she needs to go to the bathroom,'" Huey recalled.

However, "About 10 minutes later we were out in the parking lot, and Taylor starts having a seizure," Huey said. Taylor, 16, has epilepsy and experiences a temporarily debilitating attack about once a month.

Because the onset of a seizure is unpredictable and injury is possible if her son falls or is otherwise hurt during an attack, Cheryl Huey decided to adopt Chelsea -- a dog specifically trained to alert epileptics to seizures before they occur -- to help protect Taylor and give him an independence he hadn't had before.

Witnessing Chelsea's ability to sense the onset of an attack even as Taylor lay sleeping was extraordinary, Huey said. "At the time, I just couldn't believe it," she said.

"Then, out in the parking lot after he had stopped the seizure, I told her 'Stay, Chelsea,' and she crawled across his body and lay on top of him as I ran inside to get help. When I came out again, she was still across his body -- part of her training is to just protect and stay with him."

Jennifer Arnold, founder and operator of nonprofit Canine Assistants, where Chelsea was born and trained, said seizure-alert dogs can also be taught to push a button to dial 911, tug open doors to run and get help, and even use their mouths to bring their human a cordless phone or any medication they might need.

"Seeing Chelsea's reaction that first time, the response she had, I now have confidence that in the event of a seizure she's going to be in charge," Huey said.

Taylor Huey's new companion is giving him new freedom and peace of mind, too. "She's going to make me more confident and independent, help me do more stuff by myself," he said.

That's not always easy for people with epilepsy, which is still a very poorly understood disorder.

"It's a chronic condition and [an attack] is literally an electric storm in the brain that can change behaviors," explained Dr. Blanca Vasquez, director of clinical research at New York University's Comprehensive Epilepsy Center. While seizures can vary greatly in their intensity and outward manifestations, many are preceded by sensations known as an aura, she said.

Even from far across a room, seizure-alert dogs seem to be able to pick up on extremely subtle physiological changes -- minute alterations in odor or movement -- that may begin anywhere from 45 to five or 10 minutes before an actual attack. "More research needs to be done," Arnold said. "We don't exactly know right now what the dogs are responding to."

But their ability to sense these changes for their owners can be invaluable, since early warning of a seizure's onset helps people with epilepsy find a safe environment or take precautionary measures.

The Labradors and retrievers trained by the experts at Alpharetta, Ga.-based Canine Assistants begin their 18 months of instruction at just 2 days of age, learning over 90 standard commands. More mysteriously, some protective measures seem to come to the dogs by instinct, Arnold said. For example, when sensing an oncoming seizure, "they tend to want their person to lie on the ground," she said.

As any person with epilepsy will tell you, that's about the most sensible action an individual can take before a seizure, since falling is the leading cause of serious injury during an attack.

"It's fascinating -- dogs who have never seen anyone have a seizure will tug at their person's sleeve, they want you on the ground," Arnold said. "How do they have that instinct that lying on the ground is safer? We have no idea."

Arnold's investment in Canine Assistants is a very personal one. Stricken with multiple sclerosis at 16, she was confined for a time to a wheelchair. Seeking to help his daughter, Arnold's father, now deceased, discovered that people were training dogs to help partially immobilized patients navigate the tasks of daily living.

Fortunately for Arnold, her MS has improved so she can walk again. But her experience, combined with a love of dogs, compelled her and her mother to start Canine Assistants in 1991. The company matches dogs with owners in need, charging no fees.

Right now, the seizure-alert arm of Canine Assistants is funded by pharmaceutical company UCB Pharma, Inc. Arnold's team also trains dogs to help individuals with other disorders such as Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease).

And the ability of these canines to sense other, hidden health dangers is emerging, too.

"There are already dogs that have been anecdotally reported to be able to pick up on dangerously low blood sugar, including one of our own seizure-alert dogs," Arnold said. "And a service dog a few years ago alerted his owner in the middle of the night that he was having a heart attack in his sleep -- and then did it again for a stranger in a mall."

For people with epilepsy, having a four-legged, early warning system that can be taken everywhere gives them a sense of security and independence many haven't had before.

Taylor Huey said he hasn't yet decided whether he'll start taking Chelsea to school, but he certainly feels comfortable bringing her to daily outings such as church or shopping.

And Chelsea's arrival means Cheryl Huey can finally let her teenager go off on his own without worry.

"Sunday we went to the mall, and he went with me," she said. "I went to get my nails done and, as usual, I said 'Come on, Taylor.' He looked at me and said, 'No, it's OK, I've got Chelsea.' And I thought, 'Yeah, you do.' "

More information

Learn more about Canine Assistants.

SOURCES: Cheryl and Taylor Huey, Monroe, La.; Blanca Vasquez, M.D., director, clinical research, Comprehensive Epilepsy Center, New York University, New York City; Jennifer Arnold, founder, Canine Assistants, Alpharetta, Ga.

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