Jacqueline Dinicola brings Cody with her everywhere. The red merle Australian shepherd is her lifeline.
Dinicola, 23, of Anza, Calif., was diagnosed with epilepsy at age 4, after a tonic-clonic seizure on Independence Day.
She came to the epilepsy service dog world by chance, seeking a playmate for her dog Lola. From the start, Cody had other plans.
“I don’t know what it was, but he was more interested in following me from room to room than he was in having a playmate,” she says.
How Do Dogs Detect Epilepsy?
Shortly after acquiring her new sidekick in 2016, Dinicola had a seizure lasting 10 minutes, a life-threatening emergency. Much to the family’s surprise, Cody seemed to warn that the seizure was coming.
Dinicola and her mom, Candy Weil, wanted to see what he knew. They put him through trials with an animal behaviorist from the Riverside County Department of Animal Services, where Weil works as a supervisor in the animal fostering program.
It turns out that Cody not only alerts to seizures, he also checks Dinicola’s breath afterward. (Dogs often test breath or body temperature to confirm a seizure.)
What is a Service Dog?
Having a service dog, such as a seizure alert dog, is not the same as having a pet. Service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks to help people manage a disability, such as epilepsy, diabetes or post-traumatic stress.
“When Cody is with us, he is with her,” Weil says. “His whole goal is to protect her. I don’t know if he realizes what he’s protecting her from, but he protects her differently than he would if there were a burglar in the house.”
Those looking to invest in a seizure alert dog should understand that the dog-matching process typically takes two years, though it can take much longer than that.
Tonya Guy is associate director of communications at Canine Partners for Life, an accredited service dog provider in Cochranville, Pa.
While service dog programs run the gamut in affordability, often ranging from $10,000 to $30,000, Canine Partners for Life, funded solely by donations, asks applicants to invest just $1,000 to $3,000 based on a sliding scale.
Finding the right epilepsy service dog match is crucial to the success of the partnership, Guy says. She recommends contacting an accredited service dog agency listed on the Assistance Dogs International website, searchable by location and type of service dog.
Beware of Epilepsy Service Dog Schemes
Service dog scams today are exploding as people seek to profit from a poorly regulated industry.
“Fake service dogs are among the biggest challenges our industry currently faces,” Guy says. “That’s a big reason why we recommend that people use an accredited service dog organization.”
In addition to scams where people charge tens of thousands of dollars for seizure alert dogs that aren’t certified, an Associated Press article explains that legitimate service dogs and their owners are turned away by merchants tainted by bad experiences with other animals.
“In many cases, the troublemakers have been pets that people have tried to pass off as service animals — even though they haven’t undergone any special training,” the article states.
Even a routine trip to the grocery store can include sightings of terriers in carts rolling through the aisles. Throw in the emotional support animal craze and the service dog world seems all the more crowded and confusing.
While epilepsy service dogs are allowed to operate in public areas under the Americans with Disabilities Act, emotional support dogs do not have the same public access rights. They have unique rights in the housing and airline industries, however, which adds to the confusion.
Seizure Alert Dog Training Is Life Changing
At Canine Partners for Life, epilepsy service dogs and other types of service dogs undergo two years of intensive training before being matched to an individual. The first year focuses on basic obedience and socialization, helping dogs adapt to the office, grocery store, movie theater and mall.
“It’s smart to expose them to different environments at a young age so they become confident in all sorts of circumstances,” Guy says. “Once they’re matched to someone, they’ll be with them 24/7.”
When dogs are about 14 months old, they move into the kennel to work with professional trainers on advanced skills such as seizure alert, the ability to warn of an impending seizure.
If the dog does alert to seizures, it usually happens 10 minutes to an hour before seizure onset, Guy says. Cody, for example, alerts Dinicola about 15 minutes beforehand, giving her time to get to a safe place or call 911.
For Dinicola, having Cody means freedom. A seizure alert dog helps her live more independently, whether that means being able to go to the movies without anxiety or relishing more privacy at home.
For Weil, Cody brings a sense of security that lets her exhale, a luxury she didn’t always have. “It’s given me that moment where I trust him, where I know he’ll come get me if something happens,” Weil says.
Cody alerts Dinicola to seizures by sticking extra close to her, though each seizure alert dog is different.
“Some dogs rub a paw on the person or nudge them, others stare,” Guy says. “We learn what the behavior is for each dog. Once they’re matched to a person, we teach people which behavior to look for.”
Making an Epilepsy Service Dog Match
The matching process for epilepsy service dogs is intense, Guy says. It’s not first come, first served. Placing the right dog with the right person is paramount, so the agency looks at every applicant on file to make the best match possible, she says.
Is the applicant active or a home body? Do they love boating? Should the dog know how to swim? A reputable agency will ask all these questions.
At Canine Partners for Life, when a match finally is made, applicants visit the facility for nearly three weeks of team training. In small groups, applicants learn everything about their seizure alert dog before graduating from the program. Afterward, they receive lifetime support from the agency to accommodate any situational changes.
The result is a special partnership that often lasts between eight and 10 years.
“Cody is the type of dog where I can talk to him and he can talk to me with no words,” Dinicola says. “I can look at him and know what he’s thinking and vice-versa. It’s that type of bond. He’s my best friend. I don’t know what I would do without him.”
Learn more about Canine Partners for Life and support their cause as they strive to empower people with disabilities.