Super Sensors: Medical Alert Dogs - Brigadoon Service Dogs News (2017)
A dog dozes quietly under the table while her owner sips a coffee. All of a sudden, and for no apparent reason, she slides out from under the table, turns to face her owner, and noses him commandingly on the leg. A minute later, the owner has a seizure. This seemingly supernatural feat is something Brigadoon’s service dogs perform every day.
Medical alert dogs are service dogs that can alert to medical events before they occur. Diabetic alert dogs can be reliably trained to alert to low blood sugars since changes in blood sugar are associated with a smell that dogs can pick up on with their super powerful noses. However, other medical events such as the seizure example above, are more complex. Dogs have been known to predict seizures, sudden blood pressure changes, panic attacks, narcolepsy attacks, migraines, and other medical events. We’re not quite sure what dogs are noticing when they alert to these events. Some people believe the events are associated with a certain smell. Others think there might be subtle changes to the person’s breathing, movements, or other actions that the dog picks up on. There are other theories as well.
Training medical alert dogs involves training them on how to pick up on medical symptoms, alert, and respond. For diabetic alert dogs, the process of training the dog to pick up on medical symptoms is more straightforward since the scent can be captured and used to train the dog (this is done by getting a person with diabetes to breathe into cotton; then sealing it in a plastic bag, writing down the blood sugar level on the bag, and freezing it. Scent training is then used using the samples). For other types of medical alert, trainers aren’t able to teach the dog how to alert since we don’t know what to train them to notice. Instead, dogs are taught different methods of how to alert. They are then bonded closely to their person. There is no guarantee that the dog will alert (in this case, they are called “medical response dogs”), but many do develop the skill. Training the dog to alert can be done in several ways. The dog can be taught to do things like nudge with their nose, paw, rest their head on the person’s lap. Many dogs are also trained to respond to the medical crisis. This can include bringing medication or a phone, barking for help, or getting a family member. The responses trained depend on the type of medical crisis. For instance, a dog responding to a panic attack might learn how to lie their weight across the person’s lap to calm them. A dog responding to a low blood sugar might learn how to open a fridge, get a juice, and come back.
Service dogs are so special because they help people to do things they can’t do on their own. Medical alert dogs characterize this specialness in their ability to achieve feats no human beings are capable of!