Pet dog Charlie 'can predict toddler's epileptic fit'
An Irish family has said their pet dog is helping to protect their three-year-old daughter by warning them when she is about to have an epileptic seizure.
The Lynch family, from County Clare, believe their Great Dane, Charlie, can sense changes in their child up to 20 minutes before she has a fit.
Brianna Lynch has epilepsy since birth.
Her family said Charlie will alert them by walking in circles around Brianna. He also gently pins her against a wall to stop her from falling during a fit.
Brianna's condition was picked up when she was three months old.
It can lead to traumatic seizures, some of which cause her to go into a trance-like state, while others cause violent convulsions during which she is at risk of falling and hitting her head.
Brianna's mother, Arabella Scanlan, said Charlie is not a trained "seizure alert dog" but was just a normal, family pet who appears to have developed some kind of special skill through his own instincts.
They first noticed it some time ago when the huge Great Dane began to get agitated and walk in circles around Brianna. Minutes later the toddler had an epileptic fit.
"If you see a child having a seizure, it's pretty horrific, it's frightening, it's terrible, it's gut-wrenching," Ms Scanlan said.
"Charlie will know about 15 to 20 minutes before she's going into seizure. He'll get ever so panicky and giddy, almost as if you'd think 'this stupid dog is going to knock her over'."
In fact, at first the family thought they might have to find another home for their clumsy Great Dane, amid concerns that he would knock the toddler down as a result of his agitation.
"He's a big boy - it isn't like he's agile. When Charlie turns the whole room turns with him," Ms Scanlan said. "But he has never once knocked her over."
She said the family began to notice a pattern to Charlie's behaviour, with his increased agitation often preceding one of Brianna's fits.
"We kept an eye on this and, sure enough, I went into the yard one day and she (Brianna) was buckled over to the side, on top of him (Charlie). She was actually having a seizure.
"She was leaning against the wall, bent over him and he just looked at me as if to say 'I don't know what to do'. But he stayed with her, he didn't move."
Ms Scanlan said that since then, the dog rarely leaves Brianna's side and will gently pin her up against a wall or other surface if he senses she is about to fit. He will guard the child until help arrives.
"I actually don't know the psychology behind it but, no shadow of a doubt, people are mesmerised when they see him in action. It would actually melt your heart to see them together," she added.
Scientific studies have established that some dogs can be trained to "sniff out" cancers and detect low blood sugar levels in diabetic patients, but to date, there is no conclusive scientific proof that canines have an ability to predict human epileptic seizures.
UK charities such as Support Dogs and Medical Detection Dogs train dogs to assist people with a variety of medical conditions.
The Sheffield-based charity, Support Dogs, trains "seizure alert dogs" which it says can "give between 10-55 minutes warning prior to an oncoming seizure".
Medical Detection Dogs chief executive Dr Claire Guest has personal experience of the animals' ability to detect serious illness.
She was training dogs to recognise cancers, when she said one of them "started to warn her". She subsequently discovered she had an early stage breast tumour.
Dr Guest said it had been established that dogs could detect human odour changes in cancer and diabetes patients but said it was not yet clear how some dogs could predict epileptic fits.
She said it could be triggered by smell, but the dogs could also be responding to visual signals.
It is certain that not all dogs showed signs of ability to detect illness and disease.
Dr Guest said it was usually found in highly expressive dogs that were very attentive to humans and showed a general concern to protect their owners from harm.
She added that most scientific studies had been initially sparked by "anecdotal reports" from pet owners who noticed a pattern of behaviour in their dogs, but said the area would benefit from more research.
In 2003, findings from a preliminary study published in Seizure, European Journal of Epilepsy, suggested that "some dogs have innate ability to alert and/or respond to seizures".
The study added that the success of these seizure alert dogs "depends largely on the handler's awareness and response to the dog's alerting behaviour".
Charlie and Brianna's story was first reported in their local paper, the Clare Champion.
The family are fundraising to a buy a new electroencephalography (EEG) machine for University Hospital Limerick, in order to accurately diagnose their daughter's condition.