Service dogs can make a huge difference in a person with a disability’s life. They can assist with activities of daily living, reducing the need for a caregiver or personal assistant. They can alert people to sounds in their environment that they would otherwise be completely unable to hear. They can be trained to quickly summon help if needed.
The “typical” service dog behaviors are already, in my opinion, pretty amazing and demanding. However it seems nearly every day I’m learning about new unconventional tasks.
Can a dog really alert to blood pressure changes? May be, but my quick research on PubMed did not lead to any controlled studies supporting this. Can dogs alert to migraines? May be but again, I could not find research supporting this. The truth is that controlled research on service dogs in general is pretty limited. A quote from an article on seizure alert dogs – “As yet, however, no rigorous data exist as to whether seizure prediction by SADS is better than chance, and what false positive and negative prediction rates might be.” Published in 2011 in Epilepsy Research
Now lest you all consider me to be a complete party-pooper, my unscientific personal belief is that some dogs can alert to seizures, migraines and blood pressure changes. In fact, I had a dog personally, Monty, who I believe alerted to a severe dystonia flare up that I experienced. However, my personal, anecdotal experience may not be applicable to another dog, owner or situation. It’s also possible that I did not accurately interpret Monty’s behavior, after all I was not an unbiased observer.
Science based dog trainers need to be cautious when selecting tasks to work on with owner trainers. If the dog failed to perform, what would happen to the handler? Is there a plan b? Is there a better way of addressing this challenge than by relying on the service dog?
Am I saying we should never train a service dog an out of the box behavior that has not been “proven” by science? No, but I am saying we need to be very cautious when doing this. As always, we need to keep the licensed healthcare professional in the loop. After all, if we believe in science when it comes to training methods, that philosophy should translate into our work with service dogs too!