Aug 15, 2018 | Updated: 01:42 PM EDT

Four-Legged “Seizure Sniffers” Provide Protection and Comfort for their Owners

May 21, 2015 02:20 PM EDT

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Dogs have been man's companion for thousands of years. First domesticated by our hunter/gatherer ancestors over 18,000 years ago, they have been part of our culture ever since, providing protection from predators, warning us of danger, and most of all, serving as loving companions. So the fact that they may offer some assistance to those with seizure disorders should come as no surprise. It's how they assist their owners that is truly remarkable.

Take 11-year-old Alyssa Howes from Los Angeles. Alyssa has been challenged from the time she was very young. At the age of four, she lost her sight. She also started having seizures, which could occur as many as 20 times per day. And if she didn't have enough to contend with, she has also been diagnosed with leukemia. Fortunately, Alyssa is currently in remission. But that's not the only good news. She also has a four-legged companion that not only provides comfort and companionship, Flint may also possess the ability to save her life.

Flint is a golden retriever and one of many "seizure sniffers" - dogs specially trained to cue in on their owner's medical status. Although scientists disagree on how they do it, it seems some dogs have the ability to alert their owners when a seizure is imminent. This can provide valuable time for the patient to call for help or prepare for the impending event. Whether the dogs employ their powerful sense of smell to detect biochemical changes in the patient, or simply alert to visual cues from their owners, is uncertain. But according to Alyssa's family, Flint is one keen observer.

According to her mother, Flint will lick Alyssa's face or lie on top of her when he senses an approaching seizure. He will also bark, but only when Alyssa is having an event.

"When we hear him bark, we know something is up because he doesn't bark for any other reason," says Juliette Palomaki, Alyssa's mother. And Flint doesn't just provide medical support. "It gives her a companion to enjoy the moments when she is doing things she likes to do."

"And if she is having a bad day, she will call him and they will just be together."

Seizure sniffing dogs come in two forms: those that alert to a seizure (seizure alert dogs) and those that assist their owners once a seizure has occurred (seizure response dogs). Owners of the alert dogs have reported their canines warning them anywhere from 30 seconds to 45 minutes prior to an event. The dogs may bark, circle, paw or make close eye contact. The response dogs can fetch a phone or simply lie down on top of their owners to prevent them from harming themselves during the seizure.

But the dogs aren't easy to train, and unfortunately, they don't come cheap. It takes about two years to train a dog properly and it can run an owner between $10,000 and $25,000 for the dog, which is not covered by medical insurance.

But according to Alyssa's family, the comfort and protection afforded by Flint is worth every penny.

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