By Fran Buell, APDT
Bare Paw Dog Obedience
The acute senses of our canine companions are very evident to man. Every canine owner can attest to the ability of his pet to hear the opening of dog food can or container, or react to the smell of a strange odor that the owner does not recognize. And why is it, when a person approaches the owner, the canine companion will either accept the approach with wagging tail and relaxed ears or become wary, evasive and sometime downright obnoxious? Today, a small group of people, which includes doctors, scientist and dog trainers, is exploring this canine talent in relation to sensing certain illnesses and their symptoms.
Since their domestication, dogs have been man's safeguard against enemies. Now scientists feel that dogs can recognize, with their acute senses, illness.
Through several studies, it has been recorded that dogs have the amazing ability to read a person's body language, just as they read another dog's body language. Our canine companions can recognize distress in humans such as sweating, change in pupil size, a change in action or expression, and even a particular change of odor.
Of particular interest in studies being done today on this phenomenon is a dog's ability to detect the onset of epileptic seizures. Observation by parents of children with epilepsy record that their pet dog would sit on a child to parent the child from standing prior to a seizure; pushing a child away from stairs or other objects that would harm them prior to a seizure or staying by the child's side, refusing food or water hours before a seizure occurred. Doctors studying these family pets concluded that the actions of the dogs prior to an epileptic seizure as a very predictable and reliable warning.
Support Dogs, the name given to these early warning canines started being trained in 1992 by medical researcher Val Strong. Since 1994 the group has trained 30 dogs to give people with epilepsy early warning of a seizure at least 15 minutes prior to the seizure.
All dogs in Ms. Strong's program are rescues - mixed breeds found in shelters.
The traits looked for when choosing or selecting a dog for seizure work includes:
1. Alertness - dogs that always seem to be awake, even when they close their eyes, and are intensely interested in what goes on around them and changes in their environment.
2. Intense interest in people, preferring the company of people rather than other dogs.
3. The ability to bond tightly, the dogs are obsessed with being with their people, do poorly in a kennel or spending a lot of time alone.
Strangely enough, these traits make the dogs poor candidates for other service dog work or even pets.
Once the dog is selected, it is paired with someone with epilepsy. The dog-patient team then goes through training which includes the canine learning to carefully watch the patient, looking for changes specific to that individual. Previous to this pairing, the patient's medical background, seizure frequency and behavior during the seizure are studied. When completely trained, these Support Dogs will potentially work for 24/7 protecting their owners from possible danger.
Information for this column came from the April 2005 issue of "Your Dog," the newsletter of Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine.