STYLE

Service dogs that sniff out seizures give kids more normal lives, but experts say they're rare

05/20/2015 12:42 EDT | Updated 05/20/2016 05:59 EDT
LOS ANGELES, Calif. - When Alyssa Howes was 4, she lost her sight and started having seizures — up to 20 a day.

For years, her grandmother stayed in the girl's room at night, watching for an attack. That ended three years ago when Alyssa got a rare gift for a young child: a service dog named Flint.

When the golden retriever moved in, life changed for Alyssa's Los Angeles-area family. He gives the 11-year-old a more normal life by alerting her family to seizures, guiding her so she doesn't fall and allowing her to have a bit more freedom.

"It gives her a companion to enjoy the moments when she is doing things she likes to do," said her mother, Juliette Palomaki. "And if she is having a bad day, she will call him and they will just be together."

But not enough dogs are being trained for children with epilepsy, autism and other disabilities, said Karen Shirk, founder of 4 Paws for Ability, a non-profit that breeds and trains service dogs. Other agencies train dogs specifically to help people with seizures, but Ohio-based 4 Paws is one of just a few that does not exclude young children.

Most require a minor to be 16 so they can handle the dog alone in public. Because a younger child cannot do that, 4 Paws trains at least two adult caregivers, such as parents, teachers and babysitters.

Service dogs allow children to feel comfortable at the park, school and restaurants. In Alyssa's case, it means no one has to stand guard at night in case of seizures.

"Once we got Flint, she said she wanted to start sleeping on her own with him," Palomaki said.

Animal behaviourist Brandon McMillan, the star of "Lucky Dog" on CBS, says it's very easy for a child with disabilities to become a recluse.

"Life shouldn't be so complicated at 5," said McMillan, a spokesman for Magnolia Paws for Compassion, which raises awareness that kids can get service dogs. "Take a child who has a condition. Give them a dog. The dog opens up a world for this child. It's important for a child's life."

Seizure dogs are costly — taking 4 Paws $22,000 to breed and train, with each family asked to raise $15,000 — but they can alert their companions to seizures before they strike.

Scientists say pooches smell a chemical change when a person is about to seize — they just don't agree how dogs do it, Shirk said. At her training centre, dogs learn to bark to signal a seizure so an adult can give the child medicine.

For Shirk, who has a service dog, Piper, to help her with her muscular dystrophy, getting that warning allows her to take medicine that keeps her breathing.

"Messages don't get through from the brain to the muscles," Shirk said of a seizure. "Without Piper, I barely have time to call 911 before everything shuts down."

In Alyssa's case, if Flint detects a seizure, he will lick her, become very attentive, lie on her and bark, the girl's mother said.

"When we hear him bark, we know something is up because he doesn't bark for any other reason," Palomaki said.

Alyssa also has leukemia that's in remission and lacks full use of her right hand. Doctors won't give a prognosis because they "don't want to put expectations or limitations on her," Palomaki said.

"She walks, talks and can read the whole Braille alphabet with one good hand. She's a true joy, and they are a dynamic duo," Palomaki said.

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Online:

— www.4pawsforability.org .

— www.magnoliapawsforcompassion.com .

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