Is there a universal seizure odor? Karen Shirk, Executive Director of 4 Paws for Ability, is counting on it, and so are the kids and families her seizure-alert dogs match with. “We train our dogs with scent so they know the difference between what a person smells like that is going to have a seizure and what they smell like when they’re not. It’s a universal scent. We know this because we work our dogs with the scent from more than one person.”
A very small study published earlier this year (2019) appears to back Shirk’s claim. The authors say they have found the first proof of a discernible odor signature associated with seizures. The study is small, just five trained dogs were studied. Nonetheless, the authors concluded, “This possibility was previously set aside because of the belief that epilepsy and seizure types were too individual-specific for a general cue to be found.”
While not scent specific, another study published this summer (May 2019) in the journal Epilepsy & Behavior showed a high prevalence of seizure alerting among dogs belonging to owners with epilepsy. Among 227 dog owners surveyed, more than 60 percent said their dog displayed alerting behavior just prior to the onset of their (the owner’s) seizures.
In this study, the most frequent alerting behaviors among the dogs included “standing next to the owners and licking their faces and wrists.” Interestingly, only ten of the seizure alerting dogs had been formally trained, the remaining 132 dogs had developed the alerting behavior spontaneously.
This study did not investigate whether scent was the trigger for the dogs but other research has established a link between dog behavior and human chemosignals (collected from axillary sweat).
In a 2018 study published in the journal Animal Cognition, dogs consistently displayed more stress behavior when exposed to human chemosignals that had been collected from humans experiencing fear. The authors concluded, “Our findings suggest that interspecies emotional communication is facilitated by chemosignals.”
Without a doubt, the research to date is not robust, but Karen Shirk and her group are not waiting for it to catch up to help kids with seizure disorders. “We’re on our fifth and sixth generation of dogs.” Her group owns the dogs, which live in the community and come in for breeding as needed. “We know which dogs produced phenomenal tracking dogs: Which dogs produce really good seizure-alert dogs.”
All their dogs are initially trained as general service dogs. This includes basic obedience and some scent targeting. By a year and a half, the dogs are tested and picked for their ability to become seizure-alert dogs. Once a dog is matched to a child with a seizure disorder, the dog’s training becomes patient specific. The whole process can take up to two and a half years, says Shirk.
“We place our seizure-alert dogs on a three unit team: the handler, which is the caregiver, the child, and the dog.” When the dog picks up the seizure odor, it is trained to alert the caregiver. “The first thing you’re going to see is the dog intently scenting. Like, really intently. And then, the dog will look for the handler and bark.” The handler, whether it is a parent or trained caregiver, can then respond appropriately to keep that child safe.
Beyond keeping a child safe, the dogs at 4 Paws are also trained in behavior disruption. “With behavior disruption, the parents have commands to send the dog in to interact with the child. Seizure medications often cause behavioral issues, and this skill is a great means of helping your child work through them.” And of course there is also the companionship and friendship that having a dog can bring.
As the Epilepsy Foundation says, “Even if a dog cannot predict a seizure, they can provide valuable companionship, support, and emotional benefit. This can be a major benefit to people who have epilepsy and other disabilities.”