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Could I Get A Service Dog?

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Hello everyone,

Im new to this site and this is my first post, though I have been reading posts for a couple weeks now trying to get some information. I did read the flowchart post on this site to try and determine if I need a service dog or not, and I know I need talk to my doctor to get real results and answers, but I thought I would ask here first.

I suffer debilitating chronic migraines that despite my doctor's best efforts, we have not been able to get them under control with medication yet. The symptoms have been alleviated ever so slightly in the past year. I no longer get migraines every day, its closer to 4 days a week now depending on how well I can avoid my (known) triggers. When I get a severe migraine it can be extremely difficult, nearing impossible but not quite, to move for hours or even days. I find myself sitting in a dark room for most of the day. I avoid eating or drinking if I can because that means getting up. In the last year I have lost nearly 20 pounds. I feel like I am just wasting away in my room. I also have severe neck, back, and shoulder pain of varying degrees depending on the day. Some days I have only a little stiffness, other days I cannot move my head more than half an inch in any direction or bend over.

Ideally I think a service dog that could detect my migraines and alert me so I can take my medication would be extremely beneficial especially if they could wake me up from sleeping to alert me. One of my biggest problems is that I cannot tell when a migraine is about to come on unless I expose myself to one of my known triggers (altitude change and tight bands around my head). By the time I realize I have a migraine it is too late to take my rescue medication and it is virtually ineffective.

I always thought that migraines could be scent taught like diabetes or seizures, but alot of internet sources say that it cannot actually be taught a dog just either can or can't? What is your take on that and what is the truth?

Even if I could not train a dog to detect my migraines I think it would be beneficial in other ways as well. When my my neck and back are so stiff I can't move he/she could grab things for me or things I drop, help me carry things, help me walk when having a severe migraine, grab food and water from the fridge, etc

I guess I am sort of struggling with this just because the majority of the time I function pretty well and even on my worst days I can power through the pain and the most important things done (ie going to class, taking care of the pets). At the same time though I have neglected myself on several occasions. On days I have a really bad migraine I won't eat or drink if it requires getting up. Almost everyday carrying even my 5 pound backpack is enough to bring tears to my eyes. A service dog would make my life undeniably easier, but is it necessary? What do you guys think? Do you think I could or more importantly do you think I should?
Thank you in advance for answering!

Seizure alerts aren't taught.  Pretty much a dog either does them or doesn't (about 15% of the general population can predict them).  I think migraines are pretty closely related to seizures in the detection department.  But keep in mind that a dog cannot predict something that is triggered because he'd have to be psychic to know you are going to encounter the trigger.

He might be taught to recognize the triggers or recognize the beginning of a response that is triggered, but that's not going to give you much lead time. 

Diabetic dogs do not predict blood sugar but respond to it in real time.  The distinction is important from a training standpoint.  In order to teach a dog to use scent to detect something you must do or have one of two things:

1.  The ability to detect the thing you want them to learn to detect (ie diabetic test strips) so that you know when the target is present or
2.  The ability to cause the target to be present at will

If you can simply purchase bottled scent of the desired target then it's fairly straight forward.  But you can't, not for these sorts of targets.

So diabetic alert dogs do work by scent and they can be trained but that's because of diabetic testing apparati that exist and because there is a distinctive odor that even a human can recognize.

Why doesn't this work with seizure or migraine alerts?  For two reasons.  First, I'm fairly certain they are not detecting them by scent.  I'm fairly certain it is by small motor movement or behavior changes.  People want to believe it is by scent because dogs do have a better sense of smell than humans but that doesn't necessarily mean that all that a dog does that a human cannot is due to scent.  They also have superior visual motion detection and are much more sensitive to body language than are humans.  When my first seizure dog began to lose his vision due to cloudiness in his corneas, his alert reliability dropped.  His sense of smell was solid till the day he died and in fact he depended on scent to help him get around his vision loss.  He continued to play ball, but mostly by scent instead of sight.

I have both seizures and migraines.  Both show up on an EEG.  Both are treated by a neurologist.  Both involve malfunctions in the brain.  Both can have auras.  And for me at least, there is some overlap in when they occur.

You can find people with nutty plans for "teaching" a dog to alert to seizures or migraines, but when you look at the plans carefully you realize all they're really doing is detecting the dogs that have the natural ability and not actually teaching them anything.  Collecting saliva or sweat samples is pointless with a brain malfunction.  Do you know, there was one nutty group around 15 years ago that wanted dirty diapers from kids that bolted because somehow that was going to teach the dogs how to track them?  Well I've done some tracking and it's not the person's poop the dog is looking for but the scent of their target's dead skin cells and disturbed earth and vegetation they are following. 

There are people who think exposure is the key and they'll get a person who has seizures and put them in with puppies and hope they'll have some seizures to teach the puppies what a seizure is.  The problem is, do you want the dog to tell you when the seizure is happening or when the seizure is going to happen?  If you want them to predict a seizure or migraine, then you need to identify what the precursor is.  What is it that the dog detects 20 minutes or an hour before the seizure or migraine hit that they've figured out accurately predicts the coming event?  We have no clue what that is.  We have no way to measure when that predictor is present.  So how do we present it to the dog, cue them to signal for it and then reinforce the signal?  We can't.  Remember we need either to be able to detect when the target is present or we need to be able to cause it to be present on cue.  We can do neither with seizures or migraines.  So we're left with the natural alerters who have figured it out on their own.

The problem is that for the most part dogs live in the moment.  They aren't very good at thinking across time or finding patterns across time.  Humans are better at it and even for us it's going to be a bit of a struggle to detect.  As you are reading this pause and consider what you were doing exactly 20 minutes ago.  Not 19 minutes or 21 minutes but exactly 20 minutes ago.  See how it can be tricky to pin down?  For humans when we want to search for a patter across time we usually wind up keeping a log to help us.  A dog can't do that.

So here's another clue that it isn't scent related for dogs to detect seizures or migraines.  If it was based on scent then it would make sense that dogs with a superior sense of smell would be better at alerting, right?  Except there's no pattern based on breed or scenting ability that anyone has been able to discover.  Dogs with long noses and short can both alert, even though the longer nosed dogs are at a distinct advantage for scent work.

Cases of slimfast under the bed are a good idea.  Then you don't need to get up to take nutrition.  I think Ensure tastes awful at room temperature, but slimfast isn't bad.  Or you could put protein bars and bottled juice or water there.  Still keep in mind though that when you eat and drink you will also need to use the toilet.

You don't have anything that works to lessen or stop the migraines after they've started?  See the thing for me is that I have visual distortions, nausea and vertigo with my migraines, but the pain is tolerable.  I didn't even know they were migraines because I didn't figure they were very bad and that migraines were horrible headaches.  And my neurologist diagnosed them as migraines.  I explain this because I was told that if it got unbearable my doctor had an injection that would make it stop.  I've never gone in for the injection.  Sometimes they last up to three days, and that exhausts me but I'm not suffering enough to haul out to the doctor for a shot.  So I don't personally have rescue medicine for my migraines but I am assured that it exists and that it works quickly.  But it sounds like you don't have that option.  You mentioned receiving treatment for them from a doctor, but have you considered a specialist?  Maybe there would be a treatment option that could stop them before you lose a lot of weight or get dehydrated if you got another opinion, especially from a specialist.  Just a thought.

Sorry for taking so long to reply back, I have been a bit busy lately. Thank you so much Kirsten for taking the time to give me so much information. So few people have information on migraines and migraine alert dogs, so it is really great to have so much in one place. I realize it would be near impossible for me to train detection in a dog, if it is really movement and behavioral changes rather than scent that the dog would be detecting, given that I have a complete lack of behavior changes before a migraine (at least that I am aware of).

To answer your question, I do have rescue medication (pills) that I can take that are supposed to help alleviate a migraine. My issue is that in order for them to be effective, I need to take them at the start of my migraine. Most often, I get migraines during sleep and wake up with them or simply miss the early signs. Most days I will have a slight headache, but when suffering a migraine the pain is unbearable. In my head I feel intense levels of pressure and throbbing often associated with nausea. Additionally, with my migraines I often get severe pain where my neck meets my head as well. My neurologist has never mentioned the injection you described to me, I will have to ask about it when I see him again in December. Do you happen to know the name of that injection? If not, I'm sure he will know what I am referring to!  :happy:

The injection wasn't something from my neurologist but from my GP and I never actually tried it, so I don't know what it is or if it works.  Just that it was a solution offered to me.  I'm guessing that it would have something to do with blood vessel dilation.  Anyway, GP suggested it for my marathon migraines, not for use with just any migraine, and that might be a factor too.  I was complaining of the multiple day migraines I have, that the pain isn't so unbearable for me but that the length of the thngs really wears me thin.  I know people with excrutiating migraines and I used to think that's what migraine meant (a super painful headache), but it turns out it's the mechanics that defines them rather than the intensity.  So just for the record, mine have never been excrutiating.  I get vision distortions, and they respond well to my anticonvulsant so like a 90% decrease in migraine frequency when on my current anti-convulsant.

On behavior changes....
You might not notice them but that doesn't mean a dog wouldn't.  I'm not saying it's certain the dogs are detecting them by vision but I think it highly likely.  No one around me has ever noticed a pattern other than Cole but the thing about dogs is that their eyes can detect much smaller movements than ours can and their brains are wired to focus in on and analyze movement in ways that our brains are not. 

They are predators who primarily hunt at dusk and dawn.  There are two flavors of light receptors in our eyes and in theirs, called "rods" and "cones."  We blow dogs out of the water on number of cones, which affect color perception and acuity.  They blow us out of the water on rods, which affect vision in low light conditions and fine movement.  Additionally, dogs actually have a visual language rather than a spoken one like us.  They communicate with one another through gestures.  They're super focused on movements in humans in ways that absolutely no other species is.  They are the only species that has ever been so successful in figuring out another species instinctually.  They are the only species that, during cognition testing, will observe the human tester's eyes and make note of where they are looking.  The highest primates cannot do that.  And as I mentioned, they talk to each other primarily in gestures.  The vocalizations are mostly due to our influence on their genetic development.  They read facial expressions better than we do, the shape of lids around an eye, the set of the corner of the mouth, this is rich and clear information to them once they note a pattern.

So if you were paired with a dog that had the alerting tendency (it's actually nothing to do with vision or scent, but with processing) and that dog lived with you and you had frequent migraines there's actually a decent chance the dog would spontaneously start alerting.  I mean, Cole did.  Tardis, not so much, but again, I'm not that highly motivated to log them and really determine once and for all whether there's a pattern to some of his quirky behavior because I do sometimes get "false" seizure alerts from him that could well be something else.  I mean, Cole would alert for migraines up to four hours in advance.  That's a huge lead time.  For seizures he only had a 20 minute lead time.  Tardis's lead is more like 15 minutes on seizures.  And Tar is a goofball and frankly, I think that at least on occasion Tardis lies about a seizure when he's bored so something intersting will happen like me going home or finding a place to lie down.  I mean, I know there have been some false positives form him and my read on them is that he's lying because he does have that kind of sense of humor, but maybe I'm not being fair and he's actually alerting to something and because I haven't logged I haven't figured out what.  Sigh.  I guess I should log.  I don't need a migraine alert (doesn't change anything for me) but it would be better to know whether he's honest or an occasional fibber.

I'm going to take a guess you sleep alone, and I'm touching on that because I'm thinking that it's likely that when the migraine starts, even in your sleep, that your sleep pattern is going to change.  I know when I wake with a migraine my head is really buried under the pillow or under the covers.  I wake up noticing I'm hot and it's hard to breathe.  So, could a dog who did sleep with you perhaps notice such a pattern?  They do sleep lighter than humans do at least until they get very old or while very young.  So your general purpose adult dog 1 to 8 or so sleeps pretty light.

It's possible.  It's also possible with a pet dog, so you woudn't necessarily need a service dog.  I mean for sleeping purposes.  What you might try doing is contacting some guide dog schools or large programs in your area and inquiring about career change dogs.  These will be dogs who for one reason or another aren't able to compete the training or fail in placment to be working guide or service dogs.  Why seek them out specifically instead of going to a shelter?  Because your statistics change.  Your odds of getting a natural alerter are about 15% choosing from a shelter but about 50% choosing from a puppy bred, evaluated, raised, and trained by one of the larger programs.  That means you're a bit more than three times as likely to get lucky with an alerter getting a career change dog from one of them than getting a pet from a shelter. 

It's still a gamble.  The dog might or might not alert.  More likely than not you'll wind up with a pet, not an alerter.  So I don't recommend this option unless you'd really like to have a pet dog and it would just be an awesome bonus if he also happened to alert.

Now let me back up though.  Because I may have not been clear in talking about two different things.

1.  An ordinary pet dog, one with no alerting ability MIGHT notice a change in sleeping pattern that comes at the START of a migraine.  Not a change that predicts a migraine, but a change that says one is happening right now.  That does not require alerting ability.  A shelter rescue has about as good a chance as any other to do this, what matters is that you have a good relationship with the dog, that the dog care when you feel down or sick or otherwise not well.  That's going to be most pet dogs.  Choose a dog who connects with you, who is as attracted to you as you are to him.
2.  If you were going to get a pet dog for companionship and as a bed buddy and you wanted to increase the odds that he developed the ability to alert, then you could seek out a career change dog from a large program.  You won't get a choice in dog, but any dog you do get will be mentally well balanced and able to bond with you.  It would be a nice dog that would grow on you.  Unless you don't like dogs.

Natalie, as a TBI survivor, I get just about every headache in the book. There are two lesser known types of headaches that often get misdiagnosed as migraine. I'm not  saying that you don't get migraines. I'm just putting this out there in case you might be able to identify with either of them.

Cervicogenic headaches. You often wake up with them. They start where the skull and neck meet and proceed towards the front of the head. Often on one side. If the pain is not intervened early, the pain can become so intense that it can turn into migraines, sinus headaches or both at the same time.

Orthostatic headaches. These headaches are often accompanied with neck and back stiffness and pain. Symptoms are relieved when laying down and get worse when standing or sitting up. Often caused by a cerebral spinal fluid leak.


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