Can a dog really predict an epileptic seizure?

Detection Dilemmas

Mitch Peterson and his seizure response dog London
Mitch Peterson and his seizure response dog London

There are some good reasons why few medical professionals doubt that there are dogs that can predict epileptic seizures. After all, animals are very sensitive to subtle physical and biological cues that most humans don't notice. Unfortunately, little research has been done to prove how these dogs are able to predict seizures. One popular theory is that a dog's superior sense of smell helps to predict an imminent seizure. Others believe that dogs are more sensitive to body language than humans, so they can pick up on tiny changes in behavior and movement that occur prior to seizures.

Many medical experts cringe at the claim that dogs can be trained to detect and alert people before seizures occur. They assert that the behavior simply cannot be taught. Organizations such as Canine Assistants, for example, train seizure response dogs to summon help during a seizure, stay with the person and even fetch a telephone if needed. The group stops short of providing seizure alert dogs, however, saying that some dogs may develop the capability of predicting seizures after being placed with a patient.

Most service dog organizations do not guarantee that a dog will alert 100 percent of the time, thus echoing the medical community's hesitance to rely solely on a seizure dog for security. On the flip side, one small study reported in the European Journal of Epilepsy claimed that scientists were able to train dogs to sense seizures through "reward-based operant conditioning." In short, whenever an owner had a seizure, their dog got a treat. So the dogs began to associate the seizures with treats and started to identify the cues ahead of time. The jury is still out on the reliability of this training method, though.

Another kink in the seizure dog research chain happened in early 2007 when two small studies in the journal Neurology reported that four out of seven seizure alert dogs studied turned out to be warning their masters of psychological, rather than epileptic seizures. This may not seem like a big deal, but the two disorders are very different. A 2006 study revealed that up to 30 percent of patients who actually suffer from psychogenic nonepileptic seizures (PNES) are misdiagnosed with epilepsy [source: ScienceDaily]. PNES, which results from emotional difficulties and can often be successfully treated with counseling, rather than unnecessary and harsh epilepsy drugs. The 2007 study also revealed one instance of seizures being triggered by the patient's dog's warning behaviors, indicating another flaw in the reliability of canine seizure prediction.

So how do people acquire seizure response dogs? On the next page, we'll find out.