Dogs can alert to many different medical conditions including POTS, seizures, diabetes, panic, anxiety, repetitive behaviors, allergic reactions, and more. It is NEVER limited to these conditions, and, in fact, we try to add new conditions whenever we can.
Little Angels Service Dogs has led the way through these discoveries. We were one of the first organizations to actively train dogs to alert to seizures, and we enjoy sharing our methods with other organizations who want to add
Dogs need the opportunity to recognize the condition, be trained in a behavior, understand the association, and be motivated to perform the trained behavior.
For each individual recipient, we need to ask these questions to determine the likelihood of a successful alert:
1) How often does the medical episode occur? It needs to be more than once a month.
2) Are you or a resident aware EVERY time the episode occurs, either during the
3) Can you play the alert game with the dog within 5 minutes of the episode occurring, EVERY TIME? This often can’t happen with panic attacks because the recipient is so overwhelmed that they cannot communicate with anyone at all for a longer period of time. The dog needs the timing to be clear in order to understand what is being communicated.
4) Is this something a dog can recognize? This is the big ‘what if’. If it is something the dog can smell, hear, or see – then yes. Many times a dog can hone in with one these
So what if it is a medical condition that Little Angels have not worked with before? How do we know if the dog will sense the condition?
This is often something we discover after handler training, and sometimes even weeks or months after the dog has been living with their recipient. It can take some time to ‘explain’ to the dog what we need them to detect.
If you can answer ‘yes’ to the above questions, then we can certainly try. However, if you answered ‘no’ to any of the above, then it is unlikely to communicate the information to the dog.
Even if all of the above factors line up, a trainer should never guarantee the outcome of a dog’s training. This is not only limited to
Surprisingly, training a dog to perform medical alert, is very similar to training a dog to perform most obedience commands, only that the cue will end up being the symptom, such as the scent of rising or dropping blood sugar. Teaching the dog to recognize the symptom is the most difficult aspect.
First, we train the dog to perform a very simple behavior: pawing at the leg. The dog gets a tasty treat for doing so, which leads them to enjoy the interaction. Initially, the dog is asked to perform this behavior with a hand signal from their trainer. We call this the ‘alert game’.
Next, we pair the behavior with the medical condition. In certain cases, we can get some of this training out of the way before the recipient meets their dog. In the cases of diabetes, hearing, and seizures this is
For hearing dogs, we are teaching them to paw at our leg to the sound of buzzers, alarms, and even the recipient’s name. Once the dog has learned to paw at our leg with our hand signal, we simply set a tone off, such as an alarm, and tell the dog to paw at our leg. Pretty soon, we no longer need to give the hand signal, because the dog has learned to associate the alarm as the cue. Now when the dog hears the alarm, they paw at the trainer’s leg to get a treat. Simple right?
Well, it’s not that much different when training a dog to alert to seizures. Here, we know the cue will be scent, so we ask the recipient to send us a scent sample of their seizure. This is simply taken with clean gauze, by swabbing the inside of the patient’s cheeks, and palms of their hands directly after a seizure. The recipient seals up the scent and mails it to our kennel. We are careful to put the gauze into an airtight container which opens quietly, and we store it in the refrigerator between training sessions so the scent will last longer. Can you guess why the container needs to open quietly? It is because we don’t want the dog associating the alert behavior with any stimulus other than the scent of the seizure. If they could see the scent container, or hear it open before we played the alert game, then that becomes part of the puzzle for the dog.
Our trainers are careful to keep the scent container hidden and will hold it in their treat pouch, or behind a barrier in our classroom when it is opened. As soon as the dog is exposed to the scent – either by walking into a room with the open
Before very long the dog walks into the room with an open scent container and will immediately start pawing at the trainer’s leg. We can also have another trainer walk behind the dog in the middle of a lesson, waiving the scent container inconspicuously in the air, and the dog will paw at their trainer’s leg. This is when we know the dog understands. The scent has become the cue!
In some cases where
We often view service dogs as ‘the magical unicorn’, having mystical abilities and powers. But really, it comes down to our ability to view life from a dog’s perspective, being aware of their incredible senses, repeating training enough times that communication is clear, and motivating them thoroughly enough that they are excited to ‘play the game’. When all is said and done, we’ve opened the pathways and have established a connection with one of the most incredible animals on earth, and through that connection, they forever alter our lives.
By Katie Gonzalez, Director of Little Angels Service Dogs