Medical Mutts Helps Owner Train Her Own Seizure Alert Dog and Get Her Life Back
Dublin is a very special basset hound. This unusual service dog never misses a seizure and alerts Olivia so that she can prepare and get to a safe place. With him by her side, Olivia has been able to get her life back.
Diagnosed with epileptic seizures after high school, Olivia, now in her mid-twenties, saw her life completely changed. “I had lost my freedom”, she explains. “I couldn’t drive anymore or even cook. My mom was scared that I would burn myself of set the house on fire”. Patients with epileptic seizures often loose independence and must limit their activities. They might confine themselves to their home and must always make sure someone is nearby. As a seizure could happen anytime, they’re in constant danger of an injury. They might fall down the stairs, knock their head on the floor or on the corner of a table, or bang themselves on a sharp object. Driving becomes dangerous since they might lose consciousness at any time.
There are different types of seizures. From absence seizures, where the person might have a temporary loss of consciousness to a grand mall seizure that could last several seconds or several minutes and involves convulsions and jerky movements. Olivia has almost every type of seizure. Dublin alerts to all of them. “He’s 100% accurate and no matter what type of seizure I’m about to have, he lets me know so that I can stop what I’m doing and lay down”.
Fully trained service dogs can be expensive and often require waiting 1-3 years. Olivia and her mother decided to get Dublin as a puppy and learn how to train him themselves. With the help of Medical Mutts, a service dog organization specialized in the training of seizure alert dogs, Olivia taught her dog all the behaviors that he would need to become her seizure alert dog. They joined the group classes, and after a little over a year, Dublin had learned the 30+ behaviors required.
“I found it very rewarding to learn how to train him”, shares Olivia. “Scent training was amazing to do. Watching him find my seizure samples was incredible. I taught Dublin to poke me with his nose to alert me. He will press a button or go get another person when I need assistance. Sometimes he’ll also bark.” Medical Mutts is the first organization to prove that there is a smell that is released when someone has a seizure. In collaboration with a French research team, they published a peer review study that showed that this could be done. They teach the dogs to react to that smell and that’s how they get them to alert. Their training methods are now taught to other service dog organizations, all the way to Europe.
In addition to the behaviors meant to help with Olivia’s seizures, Dublin had to learned how to be well behaved out in public. Under the guidance of Medical Mutts’ trainers, Olivia taught him to walk without pulling on the leash and lie down under a table, amongst many other obedience behaviors required for service dogs. They have learned how to go through a public space safely and without causing any problems to others.
Training one’s own service dog isn’t for everyone however. It takes time and consistency. Dogs need regular practice of each behavior before they become automatic. They also need to learn how to work in a variety of situations. It’s one thing to perform in the living room, it’s very different to do so in a busy mall. When a person is able to learn these skills however, it can be a real advantage. They are much more familiar with their dogs’ needs and will be able to problem solve if something unexpected occurs. For Olivia, training her own service dog allowed her to pick the dog that she wanted and develop the handling skills she needed as a service dog handler. Dublin and her have learned how to become a working team together and at their own pace.
“Dublin has given me my life back. I have a lot more freedom thanks to him. I have gained back my independence and have even been able to get a job. Dublin is with me everywhere and keeps a close eye on me. He keeps me safe”.
Jennifer Cattet Ph.D. is an author, researcher, dog trainer, consultant, and Executive Director of Medical Mutts, a non-profit organization specialized in the training of medical alert dogs for conditions such as seizures, diabetes, psychiatric disorders, etc.