Alison and Adonis

When newlywed Alison Brennan decided to get a Golden Labrador pup from a

litter down the road from her Townsville home, she hoped she'd be able to

train him to be an epilepsy alert dog.

Diagnosed with epilepsy at 15, Alison and her husband Keith saw a TV

documentary on epilepsy-alert dogs and hoped that with the right training,

Adonis, their handsome eight-week-old pup, could be trained to look after

Alison in the event of a seizure.

With the help of ASDOGS (NQ) Inc, the couple began training the young dog

and in no time he's learned to roll Alison on to her side in a seizure and

to press a panic button in the house to summon help. He also learned to nose

her on to a sofa at the beginning of an attack to make sure she didn't fall

and hurt herself.

The pup quickly picked up all that was expected of him, but what was

unexpected was that Adonis also showed an ability to not only deal with a

seizure, but to predict one in advance.

"No one is sure how dogs are able to do this," Alison says. "It could be

that dogs pick up on changes in the brain's electro-magnetic field prior to

a seizure, or it could be that they detect subtle changes in body odour. Or

it might be simply that they notice small change in the epileptic's


How dogs predict seizures remain a mystery but there is no mystery about the

fact that in September 2003 six-month-old Adonis saved Alison's life.

With Keith, then a corporal with the Australian Defence Forces deployed to

Iraq, Alison and Adonis were home alone and about to duck out for some

takeaway. "But when I picked up my keys, Adonis instantly tried to get them

off me," Alison remembers. "I thought he was just being playful and saw the

keys as a sign we were off to the park. But when I opened the front door, he

tried to block me and then he raced down to the gate and refused to let me


That's when Alison realised that Adonis was alerting her to a seizure. Back

inside the house, she called an ambulance then lay down. A second later she

lost consciousness and when she woke she found herself in hospital having

been operated on to remove a blood clot on the brain.

"The clot triggered the seizures and doctors thought the clot had formed as

a result of a fall I had during a seizure a year before," says Alison who

didn't realised that 24 hours had passed by the time she came to.

"If Adonis hadn't alerted me and given me time to call an ambulance, I

wouldn't have made it," she says and proudly relates how Adonis took charge.

"He gave them the house keys so they could lock up and then trotted off and

returned with a backpack."

Assuming it was an emergency overnight bag for Alison, the paramedics didn't

open the backpack until they got Alison to hospital. But instead of finding

a toothbrush and nightie as expected, they found a selection of Adonis' toys

and dog treats.

"The backpack was his own idea," Alison says laughing. "I take it on our

walks or on visits to friends and he obviously thought this was a good


Now five years old, Adonis remains Alison's constant companion, guardian and

best friend. And although he is constantly on the lookout, he is a typical

Lab who loves to play. Each night as he settles down on his spot on the

floor of the couple's bedroom, he waits for Keith to nod off before sneaking

up on the bed to sleep alongside Alison.

"I should say no but I can't," she confesses laughing. "He's not only saved

my life but given me my independence along with love, joy and laughter."

Animal instincts   22-Feb-2006

From seizure-alert dogs to goldfish that lower your blood pressure, it seems pets come with a host of health benefits — they can even be life-savers. By Bianca Nogrady


MOST dog owners will swear their pet is the most intelligent creature on Earth. But Alison Brennan’s dog, Adonis, is in a class of his own.

Not only can he sense when Alison is about to have an epileptic seizure, he alerts her 15 minutes ahead of time and has even helped ambulance officers rescue Alison when she collapsed at home alone (see ‘Adonis to the rescue’, below).

While the benefits aren’t always so dramatic, researchers are becoming more aware of the many ways pets can be good for their owners’ health.

A tongue-in-cheek study of hypoglycaemia detection using a “novel, fully biocompatible and patient-friendly” alarm system —otherwise known as a dog — first sparked Dr Alan Stocks’ interest in the health benefits pets could offer. The paper described three cases of dogs who regularly alerted their diabetic owners to an impending hypoglycaemic event by behaving strangely until the owners took steps to raise their blood sugar.1

An intrigued Dr Stocks, an endocrinologist at Brisbane’s Princess Alexandra Hospital, surveyed his pet-owning patients and discovered more than half their dogs showed a change in behaviour during an owner’s hypoglycaemic event. Behaviours included becoming agitated, growling or suddenly being extremely attentive to their owner. Some hypoglycaemia-unaware patients such as Victor Lopatich (see ‘Sammie the sugar dog’, below) actually relied on their dogs to alert them to an impending event.

With the aid of sniffer dogs and a trainer, Dr Stocks is now working to isolate the substance that triggers the dogs’ reactions, with the ultimate aim of developing a training program for “sugar dogs”. But so far the key ingredient remains elusive. “I’ve not been able to identify accurately what it is, but I still think the likely trigger is adrenaline or something close to it,” he says. “There’s no question at all that dogs can react to these chemicals in extraordinarily dilute concentrations and they can be trained to indicate when they detect them.”

US researchers have taken a similar approach with cancer patients, after reports of two dogs who persistently sniffed a lesion on their owner’s leg and, in one case, tried to bite it off.2 When the dogs’ owners sought medical attention, one lesion turned out to be a melanoma and the other a basal cell carcinoma.

In a more recent double-blind experiment, researchers trained five dogs to detect lung or breast cancer by sniffing patients’ breath samples.3 The dogs’ ability to ‘diagnose’ lung cancer was extraordinary, achieving 99% sensitivity and specificity when measured against conventional diagnosis confirmed by biopsy. The accuracy was slightly lower with breast cancer patients but still on a par with mammography.

Other health benefits pets may offer are proving more difficult to pin down. Studies of cardiovascular effects have produced conflicting results, although many experts remain convinced some form of benefit is there.

Almost 20 years ago a large Melbourne survey of cardiovascular risk factors revealed a surprising trend. Among the usual questions about smoking and family history, subjects were asked about pet ownership. Those who had pets were found to have a slightly more favourable cardiovascular risk profile than those who did not. Pet owners had lower systolic blood pressure, plasma triglycerides and, in men, lower total cholesterol.4 The effect was modest but, according to cardiologist Professor Garry Jennings, who conducted the research with colleagues at the Baker Heart Research Institute in Melbourne, it could not be explained by factors such as weight or exercise habits.

“The obvious theory would be that it’s people that own dogs, walk their dogs and get more exercise … but we found the effect was still present in animals you wouldn’t walk, like goldfish,” says Professor Jennings, now director of the Baker Institute. He speculates that the presence of a pet may partly counter the known adverse cardiovascular effects of social isolation and depression, although another study showing dog owners had better survival rates after acute MI found the effect was independent of patients’ level of social support.5

And, despite a more recent Australian study that found pet owners actually had higher diastolic BP than non-owners, the scientific community seems unwilling to turn its back on the idea that pets bring health benefits.6“We can be fairly confident that pets do confer health benefits, but we do not know exactly how,” wrote the author of an editorial accompanying the more recent study. “Continuing medical research is needed to move things forward.”7

Beyond the esoteric world of research, many health care workers believe their patients are already gaining enormous benefits from contact with companion animals.

Melbourne occupational therapist Gillian Jarvis has no doubt about the comfort pets can bring to a frail and confused mind. Working in conjunction with the Delta Society — a global organisation set up to facilitate “positive interaction between people and animals”— Ms Jarvis brings a dog to her reminiscence therapy classes for elderly patients with dementia. The classes aim to take patients back to a time when their minds were sharper and life was (generally) better. The presence of a pet brings a nostalgic focus to launch the stroll down memory lane, because almost everyone has fond memories of a companion animal.

“Even people with severe dementia weren’t excluded from the interaction [because] if you have really severe memory problems, you can still look at a dog and get joy from it,” Ms Jarvis says. “I’ve had people who don’t remember their own children chase me down the corridor and ask when the dog’s coming back.”

Pets are becoming a familiar presence in many nursing homes and hospitals around Australia, not only as visitors but also as residents. Cats are more suited as live-in pets in nursing homes because they cope better than dogs with the sometimes chaotic or stressful atmosphere, Ms Jarvis says. One aged care facility she visited had a resident budgerigar. “Every single person would walk past and talk to it and sing to it or sit near it — and the budgie would respond as well.”

Nonetheless, when it comes to “getting into people’s souls and waking them up”, she believes dogs are the “cream of the crop”.

Clinical neuropsychologist Dr Pauleen Bennett (PhD), from Melbourne’s Monash University, is hoping to find a way to measure the undoubted effect pets have on patients with dementia. “Everybody that works in the area knows that it works,” Dr Bennett says. “Everybody that takes their dog visiting knows that it works. But actually measuring it in a scientifically rigorous way has been a challenge.”

Pet therapy brings various benefits to elderly patients, Dr Bennett says. The first is the simple fact that it brings in visitors, whether two- or four-legged. Contact with a pet also gives patients tactile stimulation in an environment where hugging and contact between staff and patients is discouraged. And the presence of a pet acts as a form of “social lubrication”, she says. “It’s a horrible term, but what it means is somebody who’s sitting with a dog, they’re perceived as being much more approachable and more friendly.”

The idea of bringing animals into an environment where people may not be at their healthiest could raise eyebrows but it seems the reputation of pets may have been unfairly tarnished when it comes to allergic disease. Studies now suggest the presence of a pet in early childhood may protect against atopy, even in at-risk children.8

And, while similar benefits for adults with existing atopy have not been found, pet owners are voting with their feet. One study found 70% would disregard advice to get rid of a pet because of their allergic conditions.

Like those patients who would rather put up with chronic atopy than live without their beloved animals, Dr Bennett doesn’t need persuading that the benefits of her pets outweigh any possible disadvantages.

“My quality of life is completely dependent on the relationship I have with my pets [seven dogs, a cat, alpacas and goats],”she says. “They keep me sane and I think that’s true of everybody that owns them.


1. BMJ 2000; 321:1565-66.

2. Lancet 2001; 358:930.

3. Integrative Cancer Therapies 2006; in press.

4. Medical Journal of Australia 1992; 157:298-301.

5. American Journal of Cardiology 1995; 76:1213-17.

6. MJA 2003; 179:466-68.

7. MJA 2003; 179:460-61.

8. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 2004; 113:307-14.


ALISON Brennan was heading out her front gate to get dinner when her labrador Adonis barred the way, stealing the keys from her hand and running back into the house and up the stairs.

Thinking the dog was playing, Ms Brennan started to chase him, but then realised he was giving her the first warning of an impending epilieptic seizure.

After seeing a television program about alert dogs, the 26-year-old owner of a Townsville book exchange had trained Adonis to paw at her legs 15 minutes before a seizure and then bark one minute before.

With her husband away, she took Adonis' warning seriously, calling an ambulance and lying down on the floor to wait. "By the time they got there, I was already unconscious."

Adonis opened the front door to let the ambulance officers in, dragged out his orange jacket identifying him as an 'assistance dog', brought over the house keys and picked up a backpack the officers assumed was his owner's overnight bag.

The ambulance raced Ms Brennan -- Adonis still by her side -- to a nearby hospital where it was discovered the assistance dog really had thought of everything. When the backpack was opened, it revealed, not a night-gown and toothbrush, but Adonis' favourite dog toys.

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