November is National Epilepsy Awareness Month. Epilepsy is a brain condition which causes the person to experience seizures, and it is more common than you might think. In fact, one in 26 people in the United States will develop epilepsy in their lifetime. For many people living with epilepsy, medications can keep their seizures fully under control. Others may need other types of treatments or procedures to help. And for some, a seizure response dog is how they navigate their everyday life with independence, knowing that they will be safe and well cared for by their four-legged partner. For Molly, Atlas’ Director of Operations and Programs, a seizure response dog was exactly what she needed to thrive. Read on as she shares her story.
How It All Began
“My freshman year of college, I suffered a mild concussion after being hit in the head. Besides some increased headaches, which I already dealt with and some minor difficulties with my focus, there was nothing major holding me back. It wasn’t until two months after the head injury that I had my first seizure. It was 1 am and I was walking back to my dorm with some friends when everything went black. By the time the paramedics showed up, I was already awake, and they told me I had likely just had a panic attack, despite what my friends were describing to them. This continued happening throughout the following days, multiple times a day, until I was hospitalized for a total of 10 days.”
Why Get a Service Dog
“There were little successful options for me in terms of medications or treatments. I had dropped out of college, moved back in with my parents, and was supervised any time I wanted to go up or down the stairs. After some research, a service dog seemed like the best option for me. After many phone calls and emails to different trainers, breeders, and organizations, I found the trainer who helped get me paired with Reid, a goofy teenage labradoodle.“
Seizure Response or Seizure Alert?
“Many people think that all dogs can be trained to alert to someone’s seizures. This isn’t necessarily true. There is a lot of debate and differing views on this, and recently some very exciting studies showing the link between scent and epileptic seizures. But when I first got Reid, it was made clear to me that though the goal was to have him sense my seizures, this may not happen. We would train for seizure response, and hopefully he would begin to alert. Even if he would never have been able to sense my seizures ahead of time, having him learn to keep me safe during and after a seizure would still be instrumental to my well-being. Amazingly, six weeks into being part of my life, Reid did start sensing my seizures.
Today, he alerts my by nudging me distinctly and persistently with his nose, but this was not always the case. The first time that he likely sensed anything, he started acting odd. He was running around in circles and grabbing at my clothes, seconds later, I dropped to the ground. As this kept happening, it became clear that he was indeed sensing a change in my body status. But a service dog can’t be running around in circles and grabbing at my clothes in public. So from there, any time I would see that behavior, I had to immediately redirect him to “boop” me with his nose. And that became his alert.“
In the following video, Molly sitting in the background on the right, filming a training session during an Atlas workshop. Reid is laying down at her side. Watch as he begins to alert her.
How Does Reid Help Before, During, and After a Seizure?
“Reid quickly started to give me more advanced warnings. From seconds to a minute or two, to 10. Thanks to his heads up, I can find a safe place to lie down, let anyone around me know that I will be having a seizure and to not panic, and most importantly, to not call 911. During the seizure, he stays right at my side and will ensure I am not injuring myself. After the seizure, he stays right there with me for as long as I need. He will start licking my arms and face which helps me start moving again and become aware of my surroundings. He climbs on top of my and provides deep pressure therapy which also helps to ground me and helps mitigate any extra tingling sensations I might feel in my legs. When I am ready to get up, he will stand and allow me to brace on his shoulders so that I can stand up without anyone else’s help. Depending on my location, he will also pick up his leash for me so that I don’t have to bend over to grab it while I am still a little dizzy and unstable.“
How Has Reid Improved Your Quality of Life?
“He saved me. Both physically by preventing falls and injuries, but also emotionally. Developing a disability as a young adult can strip you from your independence, your confidence, and destroy all the plans you had for the future. Training him gave me a purpose and a reason to get up in the morning. His incredible skills allowed me to return to school, graduate, and enter the work force. Our partnership showed me that disabilities are nothing to be ashamed of or pitied. In fact, disabilities are empowering and strengthening. Yes, there are days where I wish I did not need to have Reid. But I would in no way, if given the option, get rid of my disability, my experiences as a disabled person, or my incredible service dog. I will be forever grateful that I get to have this amazing furry partner in my life.“
Thank you to Molly for sharing her story. And thank you Reid for all that he does for her. These amazing service dogs and life-changing partners will never stop amazing us!
About Atlas Assistance Dogs
Atlas Assistance Dogs is a non-profit organization that fundamentally expands access to assistance dogs. We support people with disabilities to train and certify their own service dog using positive, ethical training methods. At Atlas, we believe anyone who would benefit from a qualified assistance dog should be able to have one.