Support dog detects his owner’s seizures 37 minutes before they occur

Cobble and Nicola Neal
Cobble and Nicola Neal. Image: The Times. I hope you will allow me to use the photo here. Problem? Please comment.
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NEWS AND COMMENT: This is a story about the amazing dogs who support their human caregivers. In this instance it concerns Cobble a five-year-old labrador who can detect an oncoming seizure in his owner precisely 37 minutes before it happens. He is able to detect a certain odour which signals the oncoming seizure. Cobble, signals the oncoming seizure by standing in front of Nicola and chomping his lips.

It is remarkable to note that a machine can detect this odour but it requires 100-400 ppb (parts per billion) of the odour to detect it whereas Cobble requires a concentration of 0.001 ppb to detect the odour. That is how brilliantly and sensationally sensitive the dog’s nose is to the detection of odours.

He supports Nicola Neal who is a police officer who used to work in the response team at the Met Police, a job that she loved and carried out for 20 years. But after she suffered a fall in January 2015, her brain was injured and she now suffers from epileptic seizures. They occur regularly and in the past they have resulted in her being injured such as falling over while ironing and the iron resting against her leg causing horrendous burns. Or, on one occasion, she collapsed onto her oven door breaking her hand. And on the third occasion she fell over and injured her face and hips. Having an epileptic seizure is very dangerous but now with a 37 minute warning by her beautiful dog she can find a safe place to settle down where the seizure will not harm her.

Cobble was trained by the Support Dogs UK charity. It takes two years to train a dog to do what Cobble does and he is specifically trained to assist Nicola Neal. It is that precise. I suspect that each individual person produces their own odours as a result of their epileptic seizures and therefore they are focused in on detecting that odour and signalling the oncoming seizure to their human caregiver.

Danny Anderson, the charity’s head of fundraising said: “Cobble wouldn’t pick up on someone else’s seizure. Cobble will only alert to Nicola and her seizures. Dogs are people watchers, they are just focused on their owners and the person they are supporting and they enjoy it and get rewarded.”

After Cobble warns Nicola she gives him a piece of sausage which she carries around as a reward. This is reinforcing Cobble’s positive reinforcement training. I guess it’s a way of constantly tuning it up so he is always alert.

Cobble has a stunning level of accuracy which is very reassuring to Nicola because it means she can totally rely on him and as a result she has not injured herself since he came on board.

She regards him as her third boy (she must have two other human boys!). She says this about him: “He is a superstar. He is like my third boy, only he doesn’t moan about food, as he eats everything.”

And she added that: “He is never wrong. He is trained to get help as well. The other night I had a seizure in my sleep and he started barking for Michael [her husband], who was downstairs watching football, to come and help.”

Nicola is now able to work again at the Met Police and works in administration.

Scientists don’t know exactly how, Cobble and his canine colleagues are able to detect oncoming seizures. Other dogs are trained to do similar support roles such as assisting and protecting autistic children from running into roads. However, it must be to do with odour and the dog’s amazing ability to detect minute particles of odour.

Research published in the journal Nature in March 2019 found for the first time that seizures are linked with odours.

Dogs can also use their sense of smell to detect the odours from breast and lung cancers as well as diabetes and kidney disease. And during the Covid pandemic they show that they can detect Covid-19.

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