Seizure alert dogs

Seizure alert dogs are assistance dogs trained to detect the signs of an epileptic seizure in their owner, before it happens. They warn their owner of a seizure by barking, whining or jumping, giving the person enough time to get to a safe place. The dogs can give their owner an accurate warning between 20 and 45 minutes before the seizure. Seizure alert dogs are usually only given to people with poorly controlled epilepsy with ten or more tonic-clonic or complex partial seizures per month, and who haven't had medication changes for six months before they apply.

Quite a few people we spoke with had never heard about assistance dogs for epilepsy. A few said they were interested in either having a seizure alert dog or knowing more about them. 

One man said that, although he was interested in having a seizure alert dog, it would be a 'last resort' because he didn't feel responsible enough to look after a dog. He was also concerned that an assistance dog might limit his social life and relationships. Another person was worried that the criteria for having an assistance dog might be too strict for her to be eligible.

We spoke to one woman who'd had a seizure alert dog for five years. Holly has had tonic-clonic seizures since she was 18. She'd tried many different types of medication but none controlled her seizures. Her GP suggested applying for an assistance dog. Holly was initially meant to have a seizure response dog, who gets a person to a safe place after a seizure and seeks help. But it turned out that Elvis could in fact warn Holly before she was about to have a seizure.

How do they know?
Each seizure alert dog is trained with its new owner so that they can learn to identify the owner's specific seizure activity. It is not clear how the dogs can identify when a seizure is about to occur. It is thought they may be picking up on unique signs of seizures' physiological or behavioural changes that the people themselves and those around them are not aware of. This could include pupils dilating or changes in facial expressions or colour. Seizure alert dogs are selected from rescue centres and go through a long training process - first in a specialist training centre, then in a foster home and finally with their prospective owner.

At first, when Elvis gave Holly a warning, she would get herself to a safe place and Elvis would press the panic button to call the ambulance. A doctor whom Holly saw only once at A&E, suggested that when Elvis gives her a warning, she should take medication to prevent having a seizure altogether.

Daily life
Like any assistance dogs, seizure alert dogs need a regular pattern in their life. This may mean that the owner needs to adjust their lifestyle.
Freedoms and restrictions
A seizure alert dog can change the owner's life completely and give them independence that might not otherwise be possible. Holly said it was only because of her dog that she could live on her own, go to work and live a completely independent life. Holly says Elvis has changed her life and is 'worth his weight in gold'.

Any assistance dog is a big responsibility and needs 24-hour-care. For the dog to be able to do its job properly, it must constantly be with its owner, day and night. This can bring extra pressures and restrictions to the owner's life.

Having an assistance dog can transform an invisible illness into something that other people can see. Not everyone knows about the different kinds of assistance dogs there are, and having a seizure alert dog can lead to questions from other people. All assistance dogs are authorised to access all areas, including restaurants, pubs and public transport; refusing entry to a person because they have an assistance dog is unlawful.
Each assistance dog and their owner form a unique bond. Holly says Elvis has brought her whole family closer together, has changed all their lives, and says Elvis is a particularly 'cool dog'.
For links to more information on seizure alert dogs visit our 'Epilepsy resources'.

Last reviewed May 2016.

Last updated March 2011


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