How does 4 Paws for Ability meet the needs of children with seizures?
It means training a dog that is unique in what it does for each child. Most agencies will not work with children, especially very young children. At 4 Paws, we have no minimum age requirement and believe fully in early intervention.
There are two types of dogs trained to help with seizure disorders, Seizure Response Dogs and Seizure Alert Dogs. Our training falls into the second category and we refer to them as Seizure Assistance Dogs.
Most of the calls 4 Paws take on a daily basis, in regard to Seizure Assistance Dogs, are from the parents of children who have seizures. This led us to develop a program geared toward the placement of dogs trained to provide a level of emotional support above and beyond what could be achieved with the addition of a family pet as well as training the dog to alert parents to seizures when they occur of not even beforehand. We have an 80% success rate in our placements.
While children are not mature enough to participate in the intensive training process needed for the successful placement of the Seizure Response Dog (which is what the agencies that do not place with children train), the parents can use a Seizure Assistance Dog as a tool in helping keep their child safe and the benefits of having a dog as a companion and friend are priceless.
The Seizure Service Dog can do the following:
- Provide a measure of comfort for the child
- Provide a distraction during unpleasant medical procedures, such as blood tests
- Be used during a therapy session to enlist the child’s participation
In addition, children with seizures may be afraid of being alone, sleeping in their own beds, and engaging in activities because they might have a seizure. In these instances, dogs can give the children a little courage while helping them maintain their independence.
In addition to providing emotional support in the various medical environments, the Seizure Assistance Dogs can bring with them the miracles that arise with every service dog provided to children with any disability. Sometimes the child who has extensive seizures must wear a helmet to protect from falls when playing on the playground. Or while playing with the neighborhood kids, or during school recess.
These events could, and often do, lead to isolation. The children who lack understanding of the child’s “difference” from them often avoid the child who experiences seizures. Even young children that do have friends may find themselves left behind by their peers as they get older if the seizures limit their activities or result in cognitive delays.
However, there are few children who don’t like dogs, and the miracles that occur when children with disabilities enter the playgrounds with their service dogs is amazing. The service dog breaks the ice. Children will come to pet the dog, and in doing so there is an opportunity to get to know the child and understand her disability rather than avoiding her.
Seizure Assistance Dogs are true service dogs and are allowed to go everywhere the child goes as long as an adult team member is with them (someone trained to handle the dog for the child). These dogs are task trained.
All Seizure Assistance Dogs at 4 Paws are trained in behavior disruption, which is a skill started in our Autism Program. 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 though them.
In addition, some seizure medications cause issues with balance and the dogs are trained, if needed, to help the child during these times by walking beside them with a harness they can hold to help stabilize themselves. During the interview and acceptance phase other tasks that may benefit the child may also be identified and trained.
Some of our parents have reported that their children have fewer seizures since their dogs entered their homes. This is believed to be the result of a reduction in the stress level the children have through the comfort they find in their new companions.
Seizure alerting behavior is a naturally occurring behavior in some dogs. It is thought that perhaps 20% of dogs placed with a person who has seizures may naturally alert. One way to explain how this works is to discuss housebreaking. When you bring a new puppy home, you can’t say to the puppy, “When you have to go outside, run in a circle three times so I will know you need to go.”
What we do is to watch the puppy closely, after a period of time the person will learn to “read” the dog’s nonverbal behavior, indicating the need to go outside. For instance, the owner begins to notice that every time the puppy runs in circles, they then proceed to “Go potty.”
Eventually, the owner will let the puppy outside immediately after observing this behavior and no further accidents occur in the home. This is the same principle as understanding how dogs alert to seizures. If the dog is able to make the connection between the chemical changes he senses and the occurrence of seizures, he may begin to act in a certain way when these changes begin.
For example, they may come and stare at the owner, or they may begin barking and/or even nipping at their owners. Eventually people who seize realize that every time their dog barks madly and nips at them they will have a seizure and they will begin to prepare themselves for the seizure before it actually starts.
The one thing scientists have been able to come to an agreement on is that the dog smells a chemical body change on the person just prior to and during a seizure. While many believe it is not possible to train seizure alert here at 4 Paws we can and do! We have developed a program here at 4 Paws to work with some children who have very frequent, obvious seizures. We have seen some great success with this training and have noticed that more dogs begin to alert the seizures with the training than without.
Without going into training details, we are able to do the training if the child has frequent seizures. For us frequent means three to four a month on a regular basis. We work with the dog here to facilitate a natural response after the dog is placed. While it still does not guarantee the alert, it greatly increases it if used in conjunction with a skill trained as a part of the behavior disruption in which the dog is trained to interact with the child in a specific manner on parent command.