The numbers are astounding. Approximately 2.3 million American adults and 476,711 children and teenagers are living with epilepsy today. Epilepsy is a seizure disorder that takes its toll on the person who has it and their family members as well, both physically and emotionally. People with epilepsy often feel depressed, isolated and lonely. The family members and caregivers feel stress, anxiety and worry. If you've seen someone have a seizure you will understand immediately why this is so. As is true in so many instances, dogs are often amazing assistants for those with epilepsy and seizure disorders.
One place to turn for information about Epilepsy Assistance Dogs is Magnolia Paws for Compassion (http://www.magnoliapawsforcompassion.com). Their program highlights a number of illnesses where dogs can help people, particularly epilepsy and seizure disorders.
The Program was created by Eisai, Inc., U. S. subsidiary of a Japanese pharmaceutical company, which seeks to increase access to assistance animals and raise awareness about them. They have partnered with the Epilepsy Foundation and 4 Paws for Ability, a non-profit organization focused on the training and placement of service dogs with children and veterans, to highlight the support service dogs give to people with epilepsy or seizure disorders.
Madison Landers experienced her first seizure at 18 months and went on to experience many seizures, some lasting as long as 5 hours. Madison is now eight years old and has a seizure assistance dog, Viva, through 4 Paws for Ability. Viva not only alerts the Landers family to seizures but provides Madison with comfort, independence and companionship.
Blanca R. Vazquez, M.D. is an Attending Physician in Neurology and Director of Clinical Trials and Outpatient Services at the Comprehensive Epilepsy Center at New York University Medical Center. She is an expert regarding the specific needs of people living with epilepsy and seizure disorders. Dr, Vazquez was kind enough to take time from her busy schedule to answer my questions.
|Dr. Blanca Vazquez|
"Epilepsy is a chronic condition that is characterized by unpredictable seizures. One issue patients face is that seizures are unpredictable and they can happen anywhere. Safety is a big concern for families and patients living with epilepsy as well as social isolation and fear. Having a dog can help with many of these issues by providing a sense of structure and companionship. Additionally, interaction with animals has also been shown to relieve stress and improve depression, anxiety and pain," said Dr. Vazquez.
"Caregivers often experience stress and anxiety, especially about leaving people with the condition out of their sight. Some dogs have been trained to bark or alert an individual's family when they are having a seizure, which can provide peace of mind for families who are constantly worried.
"Interaction with service animals may greatly impact the quality of life for patients living with epilepsy and their families beyond what can be measured," Dr, Vazquez adds.
Karen Shirk is 4 Paws for Ability's Executive Director.
"At 4 Paws 90% of our dogs are purpose bred," said Shirk who responded to my questions about the dogs. "These are dogs specifically bred by 4 Paws to perform certain types of jobs. Our dogs are bred for health, temperament and longevity. Many of the dogs we use for breeding are second and third generation 4 Paws breeding dogs. This means that their mothers/fathers, and even in many cases their grandparents were 4 Paws breeding dogs. These are dogs which were held back from service dog training to produce more puppies for 4 Paws, selected as the cream of the crop from their litter and many times because their parents produced amazing service dogs with special talents like scent work."
I asked how 4 Paws meets 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.
|Karen Shirk and Piper|
The Seizure Assistance Dog can do the following:
Alert the parent to seizure activity at least during the seizure and most of the time before the seizure occurs.
Provide a measure of comfort for the child.
Provide a distraction during uncomfortable 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.
Sometimes a child who has extensive seizures must wear a helmet to protect from falls when playing on the playground. Or while playing with neighborhood kids, or during school recess. This could, and often does, 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. But few children don't like dogs and the miracle that occurs when a child with a disability enters the playgrounds with their service dog 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), Shirk explained.
Essentially the dogs are trained by 4 Paws to recognize a chemical change in the body. It's a remarkable and complex process that is based on individual needs and experience of the specific child who will receive the trained dog. Seizure Assistance Dogs are typically trained for 12 - 18 months, and these service dogs are actually trained to do many things in addition to alerting to seizures. For example, many 4 Paws seizure assistance dogs are also trained to help provide stability and balance for children after a seizure, which can lead to an increased level of independence," said Karen Shirk.
For more information on Magnolia Paws for Compassion, point your browser to:
In Part Two you'll meet another seizure assistance dog who was trained differently. Curious? Watch for my next blog post.