A young boy living with epilepsy soon will have a new tool to help him deal with his medical condition: a seizure response dog. These dogs are taught to respond in the event of a seizure in various ways, such as barking to alert family members or helping lower their human partner safely toward the ground. Reporter Stephanie Lecci was at the ceremony in Chicago when Spencer Wyatt was introduced to one of these special dogs.
Carly is no ordinary dog. The golden retriever is a specially trained seizure response dog. And Spencer Wyatt, 8, has epilepsy. This summer, he will receive a dog just like Carly from a Georgia-based organization called Canine Assistants. It places these response dogs with people with epilepsy to help them when a seizure occurs.
Jennifer Arnold, the group's executive director, explains that each recipient decides how they would like the dog to respond. "One of the things they do is run and pick up medication, so when you come out of the seizure, you have meds there to take. They also will just stand guard if you need them to, just stay by you so you're not as vulnerable. Some of them we send to go get help. Then sometimes we have them call for help. Carly, you can call for help." Carly demonstrates with an enthusiastic bark.
Since it was founded in 1991, Canine Assistants has placed about 1,000 dogs in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Kuwait, India and Spain. But there are more than 1,000 people still on the waiting list, which up until recently included Spencer.
Spencer was diagnosed with epilepsy when he was three, the result of a stroke he suffered at birth. His mother Amy says she found out about Canine Assistants through friends in an epilepsy advocacy program. "I was not even aware that there was a seizure-response-dogs-type of service companion," she admits. "I knew about guide dogs [for the blind], but I didn't realize there were ones for epilepsy seizure-response."
Wyatt says the dog will give both her and Spencer more freedom. She says Spencer is just a normal second-grader who loves the TV character Hannah Montana and studying the martial art tae kwon do, and who occasionally wants a break from his mom. So the dog will go pretty much everywhere with Spencer: to the movies, the mall, restaurants. And eventually, Spencer also will take him to school.
But for right now, Wyatt says Spencer's condition requires constant vigilance. He often gets seizures in his sleep, so she wakes up about every 30 minutes throughout the night to check on her son. "I don't like the fact that maybe he tried to call out to me and I wasn't there. As scary as it is for me to see him, how much scarier it is for him to not have someone there beside him. And so I think the dog's going to make a big difference in feeling like he's not alone."
Spencer agrees, explaining, "The dog will help call Mom in case I have a seizure. That will make it 25 percent less scary. Actually, 75 [percent less scary]!"
Spencer's new friend may be able to do much more than just sound the alarm when a seizure occurs. Canine Assistants' Jennifer Arnold says many of the group's dogs – between 80 and 95 percent – can actually detect major seizures before they happen.
It's already been suggested that dogs can pick up on other medical conditions, like cancer, high blood pressure, heart attacks and low blood sugar. Arnold thinks the ability is likely related to dogs' heightened sense of smell. But she says so far, there hasn't been much research on dogs' ability to detect the onset of a seizure.
"These dogs hold people's lives in their paws," Arnold says. "Right now we don't have a machine that can do this. We don't have a human being that can do this. Every person who has epilepsy needs to have a dog that can tell them when it's going to hit."
That's why Canine Assistants is planning to partner with some sponsors to research the ability.
Spencer's mom, Amy Wyatt, says she's hoping her son's response dog will have the ability to detect his seizures. As for Spencer, he simply can't wait to get his dog. "He will be my new best friend forever!" he promises. And he says he already knows the most important thing about having a dog: walking and feeding it.