Author: Emily Gertenbach
Migraine experiences vary widely. Every person’s experience is different and can involve a combination of symptoms, both painful, visual, and auditory. Traditional management techniques often include some form of over-the-counter or prescription medication. However, some individuals who suffer from severe migraine attacks can find welcome help and support in the form of a migraine assistance dog.
How Migraine Alert Dogs Can Help
The speed at which migraines often seem to come on can leave many people wondering how a dog can possibly help. While a migraine alert assistance dog can’t treat a migraine, of course, they can help alert migraine sufferers to an oncoming attack. This advance notice allows for some treatment to, ideally, reduce the migraine effects and get the affected person into a safe and comfortable spot.
But how could a dog understand something that’s about to happen inside the human brain?
Many people have a set of symptoms called prodrome that happen before a full-blown migraine hits. Specialized assistance dogs are trained to pick up on these symptoms – even subtle ones that the handlers themselves may not recognize. These symptoms can include changes in mood, fatigue, sensitivity to light and sound, food cravings, stiff movement, trouble speaking, difficulty reading, and problems with sleeping. When the dog picks up on prodrome symptoms, it will alert its handler using unique cues that they both understand.
It is important to understand that not all dogs may have the ability to alert to migraine attacks. And that the exact science as to what they are picking up is still unclear. With this in mind, we cannot guarantee migraine alerts and are not able to reliably train for them using methods such as scent like we would for diabetes alert dogs.
Atlas client Allison has been living with migraines and a traumatic brain injury since falling on the left side of her head. At the time her migraines began, Allison had two therapy dogs trained to comfort patients in hospitals and nursing homes. Noticing Allison’s distress, the dogs would lay on top of her as she recovered from an attack. Allison found this helped her manage the pain more effectively. Today, Allison manages migraines with help from her dog, Charlie, plus Botox and CBD treatments.
We spoke to Allison about how Charlie began noticing her migraine symptoms and ultimately became an Atlas-trained migraine assistance alert dog.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Atlas: How did you get connected with Atlas?
Allison: I met Jen (Kolar, Atlas co-founder) when I was involved with another organization.
Atlas: How does Charlie alert you to your migraines?
Allison: Charlie would paw at me, and I wouldn’t know why. He paws at me, and about 10-15 minutes later, if I don’t take CBD, I get a headache. I’ll be at my desk, and he’ll walk over and stare at me. If I don’t notice that he’s at my side, then he’ll nudge me.
Atlas: How does Charlie mitigate your migraines?
Allison: We taught him to kiss – lick – because when your mom would blow on your hand or kiss it when you’re little, that actually takes your mind off the pain. If I was hurting in my head and I needed him to, Jen taught me a signal, so he will kiss my hand. If I’m driving or in a meeting, I give a hand signal, and he will kiss my hand. The Botox, combined with Charlie and CBD, will reduce my (pain levels).
Atlas: How has having Charlie helped you?
Allison: We worked with Charlie to lean on me and to cuddle in when I needed to sleep. Brain injuries are isolating. Having a service dog helped with (the emotional factors): how you deal with the isolation, getting you out/moving, and depression.
It has opened up my world. I still have the same issues, but I’m able to work around them. The thing about migraines is that if you can space them out and avoid them, the less you get them.
Making Migraine Alert Dog Training Accessible
If you are interested in training your dog to provide migraine alert assistance, Atlas may be able to help. Our unique program empowers and enables individuals to train their own assistance dogs for support in many areas. Review our online assistance dog training checklist to begin evaluating if your dog could be a good candidate. Our team of Atlas trainers are happy to answer your questions – find a trainer near you today.
If you are a dog trainer interested in learning about medical assistance dogs and how to develop your own training skills, visit our Trainer Academy page today!