Nevertheless, if dogs can detect seizure odors, Edwards is hopeful that eventually, humans can sub in artificial intelligence (AI) to do the job. Angle and other researchers at Auburn have been imaging the canine olfactory system with the same goal in mind. “If you want to build an AI-based chemical detection system, why not study the most sensitive and advanced real-time chemical detection system on the planet, the dog,” says Angle.
Because the seizure samples were from patients having different kinds of seizures, the findings suggest that the odor the dogs detected is something common among all seizure episodes, says Edwards. Catala’s team noted that being able to generalize across different types of epilepsy was an unexpected but welcome finding.
These very good dogs are very good at what they do—taking a whiff of a chemical during an attack
Casey, Dodger and Zooey were superstars, getting it right 100 percent of the time and in under five minutes. The other dogs were correct at least 67 percent of the time, and the entire SAD team performed well even with multiple trials. Catala says that the slightly reduced accuracy of Lana and Roo might trace to their having joined the team later and having a little less training.
Now a quintet of canines—Casey, Dodger, Lana, Zooey and Roo—have answered the question of whether or not seizures have odors. It turns out that they do, and these five dogs can detect that smell in a sample swabbed from a human having an episode. Some of the trained detector dogs are better than others—we’re looking at you, Lana and Roo—but they all did well, according to findings published March 28 in Scientific Reports. “The obtained accuracy is very high,” says Tim Edwards, behavioral analyst and senior lecturer at the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand, who was not involved in the study. “As far as implications go, the results are very exciting.”
Love at First Bark
When referring to service dogs, more specifically seizure dogs, the emphasis is usually placed on how well the dog can assist the human companion. Yet, the relationship between canine and human is a reciprocal one. Hence, just as the service dog must meet certain criteria, so must the person selected to receive the dog. “It is very important for the person who is thinking of getting a seizure dog to understand what a significant commitment it is. They have to go through an application process at our organization where they complete a written application, submit an essay, and undergo an interview by phone or in person,” said Esherick.
Potential seizure dog owners must also assess whether or not they are physically, emotionally and financially able to care for the dog. Dalziel asserts that, “people don’t realize the responsibility of having a service dog. It is different than owning a pet. You have to maintain training, health and a good working relationship with a veterinarian that understands the special needs of a service dog. The success of a service dog depends as much on the human partner as it does on the dog.”
Ensuring success of a seizure dog must also include a lot of playtime and exercise since these activities help in keeping the dogs stress level down. Esherick believes the most stressful event for a seizure dog is to be separated from their human companion. “The seizure dog takes its job very seriously. When they are separated from their person, they are unable to do their job, which causes a tremendous amount of anxiety.”
Narrator: There are good boys, and then there are very good boys like these dogs here. Theyre searching for a scent that no human can detect: the scent of an epileptic seizure. Weve long known that dogs can detect seizures in humans in some cases 45 minutes before they occur. Thats one reason why organizations like Handichiens in France provide service dogs for people with epilepsy. And in some cases, this can prove lifesaving.
It might give people time to take medication that could prevent or reduce the severity of a seizure or move somewhere safer where an injury is less likely to occur. Incredible? Yes. But proven? Not until French researchers teamed up with Medical Mutts, a US-based organization that trains seizure alert dogs.
Then they distributed them among seven different steel containers in this room. Finally, they let out, or, they let in the dogs. One by one, Casey, Dodger, Lana, Zoey, and Roo walked into the room. They were trained to stop and stand still if they think they detected the scent of a seizure. And if they were right, they got a treat, good dog! To the researchers excitement, the canines excelled.
That marker, they believed, was a scent that dogs can detect. So in 2018, they set up an experiment. First, they collected dozen of samples of breath and sweat from people with different forms of epilepsy. Some of them were taken during or right after a seizure, while others were collected after exercise or at rest.
Now, whether people emit these odors before a seizure in time to reduce its worst effects is still in question, and its not something that the researchers tested. But some experts claim that people emit a specific group of odor chemicals 15 to 45 minutes prior to seizing, which dogs can detect. So what exactly makes canines such smell superstars? Its their incredible noses.