Republican-American WATERBURY, Conn.—Five or 10 minutes before Shelly Ryan has a seizure, her hands might tremble or her head begin to ache with migraine pain. Or she might also get an even earlier warning: licked hands.
Bouncer, Ryan's 2-year-old yellow Labrador, can sense something wrong with her owner. Sometimes 15 or 20 minutes before the onset of seizures Ryan has suffered for six years after multiple back operations, Bouncer will approach her and obsessively lick her hand. Or put her paws on Ryan's lap and lick her cheek.
"Now I go lie down," said Ryan, a 34-year-old Wolcott resident. "When she gives me the sign, I go lie down."
Bouncer, who received no formal training in this type of behavior, is one of a growing number of so-called "seizure dogs," who either alert their owners of an oncoming episode or help them cope with the danger and its aftermath. A spokeswoman for Assistance Dogs International, a trade group for service dog organizations with 160 member groups worldwide, said 31 groups currently offer seizure alert and response dogs, and requests for them rise every year.
Researchers disagree about what drives the dogs' behavior, but service dog trainers agree that man's best friend can often do more than retrieve slippers and slobber on the morning paper.
"We hope in the bonding process that alerting begins," said Frances Rosemeyer, program coordinator at Canine Assistants in Georgia, a nonprofit organization that trains and provides service dogs. "That's not a trainable command, it's like a sense. It's a sixth sense."
Rosemeyer said her organization trains all service dogs to respond to the same 90 commands, allowing them to assist people with a range of physical disabilities to operate light switches, open and close doors, retrieve items and press buttons. And some dogs placed with people prone to seizures will become aware of cues that precede an episode.
"In terms of seizures, we just realized that dogs had this ability," Rosemeyer said, adding that her group places about 70 dogs a year, with 1,000 in service. "Those that have that ability will give some warning that a seizure is coming. The dog decides what that warning is."
Some will bark or paw the floor or approach their owners and nudge them to a chair.
Trainers condition them to sit or lie quietly by their owners or even call for help. Ryan recalled a time visiting her sister when her sister's dog climbed up on top of her and wouldn't let her go.
"About 20 minutes later I went into a seizure," Ryan said. "I was like, 'Oh, my lord.'"
Roger Reep, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Florida, worked on a preliminary study in 1998 and concluded that dogs are using their extraordinarily keen senses of smell to sniff out hard-to-perceive internal body odors brought associated with seizures.
"Any time something as fundamental as your brain wave changes, it makes sense that would trigger an autonomic response," Reep said of the body's nervous system controlling organs and things like sweat glands.
Dogs' noses have long been used to hunt for escaped convicts, lost children, buried bodies, illegal drugs or explosives.
Now they are being trained to detect diabetes and cancer.
Deborah Dalziel, one of Reep's partners for the seizure dog study, counseled caution for anyone seeking to train or purchase a dog to help cope with seizures.
"Not everyone can work with a service dog," Dalziel said, stressing the difficulty faced by owners with multiple health problems and the need to understand how to issue commands, continuously train, and recognize the messages behind a dog's behavior. "You have to learn to trust that animal. Because your life is literally in their paws."
The Epilepsy Foundation warns people to review the claims of trainers, who unlike Canine Assistance's free service, might charge thousands of dollars for a seizure dog. Reep and Dalziel suggested people who are desperate can fall prey to people either looking to make money or operating without the necessary rigorous training.