Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

Providing "Paws" for Independence

Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

Providing "Paws" for Independence

Article excerpt

The young black Labrador Retriever rests upon his owner's bed, his large head comfortably placed upon his front paws. His dark liquid eyes close slowly as he drifts into a light sleep. Boom. A loud noise comes from somewhere in the house. "Coal" shoots off the bed like a bullet and is at Noel Flader's side in an instant, comforting her through her seizure with his warm body and licking her face and mouth to make sure she is not choking. Within a few minutes it is over, and Coal helps his owner, Noel, get back on her feet. The above scenario is an average day for an assistance dog.

"`Assistance dog' is the collective term for guide, hearing, and service dogs," says Nicole McBride, spokesperson for Assistance Dogs International in Cochranville, Pennsylvania--a volunteer-run professional organization which acts as an umbrella for the smaller organizations which train and place the dogs.

According to McBride, service dogs are trained to help Individuals who have physical disabilities. Seizure-alert and response dogs, like Coal, fall into this category.

A great discovery

According to Susan Dunkin, program manager for the Delta Society National Service Dog Center in Renton, Washingon, they have known about seizure dogs since the 1970s when dog owners were starting to watch how their pets would act when they were having a seizure. These individuals noticed patterns and began to report what their pets were doing. According to Dunkin, trial-and-error sessions take place to find out if a dog has the ability to sense seizures. The dog is placed with someone who is about to have a seizure, and watched for a reaction. To test the dog using someone who is faking a seizure does not work.

Duncan says seizure dogs are unique because their abilities to sense seizures is inate. Dunkin theorizes the dogs must pick up on something humans cannot perceive, such as a scent or sound emitted by someone who is about to have a seizure. In fact, dogs are not the only animal with this extra sense. Cats, and even iguanas, have been reported as assisting their seizure-prone owners.

"The theory widely accepted is that the dogs can pick up on chemical and electrical changes in the body, but there is no definite research at this point," McBride reports.

In many cases, owners have not acquired their canine companion for the purpose of alerting them to seizures, but eventually they discover, over time, their dog begins doing just that.

Dunkin says it is important for dogs to get obedience training once their ability has been recognized. This is because many animals will run away when they pick up on the seizure and they must learn to remain calm with their owner.

"The dog can also be taught to help an individual find things he or she might have dropped during the seizure, as well as find a safe place to go afterward because they can have problems seeing after the seizure occurs," Dunkin adds.

Companionship brings hope

For Debbie Flader of Illinois, mother of 14-year-old Noel, the fact that Coal is there as a companion to her daughter is what she loves best about the dog.

"I like the companionship he gives her," Debbie explains. "Even if he never predicted her seizures or helped her during them, it's just the idea of him being there with her all the time."

Noel first started to have seizures "out-of-the-blue" when she was eight-years old. She had surgery in 1992 to rule out the possibility of a tumor. Recently Noel's seizures have changed from "focal" (one area of the body seizes and consciousness is not lost), to atonic or "drop-attack" seizures. Although atonic seizures only last for about 15 seconds, they cause Noel to automatically drop to the floor. In one instance, it has even caused a loss of consciousness.

"The only thing predictable about seizures is that they are unpredictable," Flader explains. "You never know what's going to happen. …

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