It was almost 10 years ago when my husband and I traveled to Georgia with our 18-year old daughter Savannah. We had been on a list to get a seizure response dog for almost 5 years – since Savannah was in middle school – and we finally received the call that one was available for us.
So there the three of us were, sitting in a crowded room filled with about 18 crated dogs and about 14 other anxious families. We didn’t know which dog would be ours. We didn’t even really know what we were getting into. If I’m being honest, we were really just trying to make sure our daughter’s LGS—which she’d been debilitated by since its onset—wasn’t going to cause her to have a seizure in the middle of it all.
We’d been waiting for this moment for 5 years. And while we’d hoped it would happen sooner, in retrospect it’s better that it happened when it did. Savannah was finally on a medication that was working for her, and her seizures (which had been known to happen upward of 100’s of times each day) had lessened by 95%. She was also older now, more sturdy—less likely to be knocked over by, say, a 75-pound Golden Retriever.
The agency’s founder came in a few moments later and ushered our family into an adjoining room. Each dog was then led in, one by one. The idea was to see how the dogs responded to Savannah and to the other people in the room and then make matches based on the bond between dog and person. When the dog that we would come to know as Yukon walked in, he immediately locked eyes with my daughter, crossed the room, and jumped up onto her lap. I kid you not. And I remember one of the other people in the room saying: “Did you see that? He just chose her.”
We spent the next two weeks at that camp, learning all we could about Yukon, and him about us. I remember the founder telling us, “You all love all the dogs right now, but by the time you leave here, you’ll only have eyes for yours.” How right she was. By the time we left, Yukon was so much more than a service dog. He was the newest member of our family—the member we never knew was missing.
So, what is a service dog?
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service animal refers to any dog that’s been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of someone with a disability. This can include anyone with a physical disability, or a sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.
In our case, Yukon was a seizure response dog, trained to notify us to when our daughter was having a seizure. Much to our surprise, Yukon could also alert us to when Savannah was about to have a seizure. That’s not a typo. Yukon was able to detect seizures in Savannah before they even started! But I’m getting ahead of myself…
I think it’s important to note that service dogs are different from emotional support animals (ESAs), which people often have to help comfort them for symptoms associated with emotional conditions like depression and anxiety. Unlike service dogs, ESAs are not recognized by the ADA and have not received the same formal training required of service dogs.
Service dogs are permitted to enter any public place—in other words, they’re allowed to go anywhere that people are allowed to go. An airport? A shopping mall? A grocery store? Yes, yes, and yes. An operating room and other non-public spaces? Not so much.
With the right training, any dog can theoretically become a service animal, but Labs and Goldens make up the majority, given that they have the right temperament—they love people, love to please, and they’re really, really smart. Poodles crossed with Goldens and Labs are also becoming a popular choice, because they have hair instead of fur and are therefore hypoallergenic.
“…I remember one of the other parents saying: ‘Did you see that? He just chose her.’”
It is even possible to hire an agency or a reputable trainer to turn your family dog into a service animal. But it helps if they’re the right age and, of course, the right personality. Service dogs react well to people, and are able to keep a cool head in crowded or stressful situations. They can’t be easily distracted, and must be able to heel, come, and sit on command. They need to be able to go to the bathroom anywhere (or hold it for a bit), and respond well to their human handler.
Service dogs go through extensive training (called “proofing”) which first teaches them to tune out distractions, and then trains them to perform a task that will be useful for someone with a disability—say, fetching a pill bottle, turning on a light switch…or in the case of Yukon, responding to Savannah’s seizures and going to get help.
What are the biggest benefits of having a service dog?
Honestly, where do I start? For our family, Yukon was the best thing since sliced bread. He really was. And I can’t begin to quantify the degree to which we loved him. But here are just a few of the reasons that we did:
From the moment he laid eyes on her, Yukon loved Savannah unconditionally.
Savannah was often isolated due to her LGS, and Yukon was her best friend in every sense of the word.
Yukon was great for Savannah’s socialization; when we were out and about, kids would constantly ask to pet him, which in turn would provide a great communal atmosphere in which she could interact.
And of course, last but certainly not least, there’s the seizure response. I could leave Savannah in her room with Yukon and know that, if there were a problem, he’d come let me know. I could actually go to the kitchen and get a cup of coffee in the morning without fearing that I would miss a life-threatening seizure as I was stirring in the cream.
How do you know if your family is ready for a service dog?
If your family is considering a service dog, I offer the following advice:
- Make sure your expectations are in check. Yes, service dogs are fluffy and wonderful—and ours improved our lives exponentially—but they also take work. And it’s important to know that going in. Caring for a child with epilepsy is challenging enough, and getting a dog is going to add to your list of chores. Did the benefits of getting Yukon outweigh the added responsibility that came with having him? Yes—a thousand times over. But we didn’t think about how much work it would be initially, and it would have been helpful if we’d known what we were getting into.
- Understand that everything isn’t going to improve overnight. It’s a process. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen families get a service dog and expect it to do everything for them immediately. But it rarely works that way. The dog needs to get to know you first. He has to bond with you before he understands that he wants to help you. And with Yukon, we first had to teach him what a seizure looked like before he was able to put that together with his knowledge of how to get help. And, while this wasn’t the case with Yukon, it’s not uncommon for the dog to bond with you, the caregiver (i.e., the person that feeds and walks them) rather than the person with the disability. So there might be a learning curve there as well.
- Remember that your service dog will still need time to be a dog. Most service dogs arrive to you when they’re around 2 years old. In other words, they’re still puppies. They still need to have their downtime to roll in the grass, run around, be active. When Yukon had his service vest on, he was all business. But the minute we’d take it off, he’d revert back to being a puppy. And it was crucial that we let him. No service dog can be expected to be on duty 24-7. If they need to get up the next morning to accompany your child to school, then they MIGHT BE TOO TIRED to detect seizures in the middle of the night. Just like us, they need to be able to sleep in order to perform their job. They’re creatures with the same sort of needs that we have, and it’s important to understand and respect that.
“Did the benefits of getting Yukon outweigh the added responsibility that came with having him? Yes—a thousand times over.”
Interested in bringing a service dog into your home? Here’s where to start.
The first step is finding the right agency. While there are a dozens of agencies in the U.S. that train service animals, only a handful of them specialize in seizure response dogs. And of those agencies, each will likely abide by one of two philosophies (or a mixture of both): the first is what I call the dominance theory—essentially that you are the alpha human and therefore need to dominate your dog so that it will obey you. The second is the slightly more humane philosophy that your dog is its own being, capable of making its own choices, and will choose to aid and obey you because it has bonded to you. I’m not writing this to debate which philosophy is right or wrong, better or worse, but I do suggest that you become aware of the philosophies out there, and make sure the philosophy of the agency you choose jives with the kind of relationship you expect to have with your dog.
Here are a few of the agencies I am aware of that train and place service dogs for people with seizures and what I’ve read or heard about them:
|Canine Assistants||Their seizure response dogs are free to families, but their need-based waiting list is long. We waited over 5 years.|
|Canine Partners For Life||They provide seizure alert dogs for a donation of $1000-$3000, depending on income, and their waiting list is between 6 months and 2 years long.|
|Little Angels Service Dogs||For their seizure response and assistance dogs, they require an initial $25 application fee followed by a $500 deposit. They then assist with fund-raising, and when it is complete and the dog is placed in your care, the deposit is refunded. Their waiting list is 6-18 months long.|
|4 Paws for Ability||Though their wait list isn’t long, their seizure alert and assistance dogs cost $17,000. They endeavor to help you fund-raise within your community to offset this cost.|
|Amazing Tails LLC||While they don’t specialize in seizure response dogs, they do train dogs to fit the individual needs of their clients. Their waiting list is 1-4 years long and the client assumes complete financial responsibility for the animal.|
Whatever agency you choose, an initial application is usually collected and then a personality test is conducted. Agencies want to assess the likelihood that the person with the disability will be able to benefit from the dog’s support. Often, the agency will ask to see a video or even conduct a home visit to make sure that the environment is one in which the dog will thrive. Once a dog is placed in your home, they do not require ongoing professional training, but you will need to work with them to reinforce what they’ve learned and to help them follow through on what you ask of them. If anything, the hope is that their bond with your child will grow, and their ability to help him or her will only improve with time. That was certainly the case for Savannah and Yukon. And boy did Yukon love to work. He even supported me once when I’d had abdominal surgery and couldn’t bend at the waist—I dropped my pills on the floor and he was right there to pick them up for me.
Yukon was a member of our family, but he was Savannah’s dog. She’d be sitting on the floor after a seizure, wearing her helmet, wrapped in a blanket, under his paws. And he’d be smiling as he protected her. Loving his work. Loving her. Even though my husband fed and walked him, my son played with him, and I dispensed the belly rubs, if Yukon had his choice, it was always to be with Savannah.
Savannah had her first seizure at age 2 ½. By age 3 she was seizing every day. On a good day, she’d have 5 seizures. On a bad day, I’d stop counting after a thousand. LGS impacts every aspect of our life. If there’s a seventh level of hell, it’s watching your child suffer seizure after seizure and not be able to do anything about it. Savannah can’t read or write. And she’s ataxic from all those years of seizing and medications. But she’s happy. She’s always been happy. And this happiness was only immeasurably intensified once Yukon came into our home. He was her guardian angel. He was her best friend. And our lives are all infinitely better for having had him in it.