THEY are known as the gentle giants of the dog world – but one Great Dane has taken that to a whole new level. A family in Co Clare have come to rely on their own pet, who has an almost supernatural ability to let them know when their three-year-old toddler is about to have an epileptic seizure.
Little Brianna Lynch, from Killaloe, suffers from four different types of seizures, most of which tend to happen at night, explained mother Arabella.
Twenty minutes before the start of an episode, Charlie the dog can detect that she is about to have a seizure and will pin the child gently to the wall, not leaving her until someone comes to her assistance.
The child had to be hospitalised for resuscitation twice after she stopped breathing and went blue.
"She is quite a complex child, she forgets to breathe and then goes into a seizure. She has gone through eight different types of medicine and it now looks like she needs brain surgery," revealed Arabella.
"It is frightening because her seizures tend to happen at night. I don't tend to sleep very well because I am conscious of what might happen.
"We had incidents where she falls to the floor and hits her head so you have to be mindful of that," she added.
Arabella and her husband, Brian, have four other children – Farrah (17), Harry (15), Mia (13) and Rose (11) – who are all aware that medication has to be administered to Brianna within two minutes of any seizure to sedate her.
The whole family has learnt to live with Brianna's condition and never let the little girl out of their sight on a 24-hour basis – however, Charlie has become a real lifeline.
Arabella describes the dog's sixth sense without any training as "amazing".
"We know when he is acting strange, she is going to have a seizure," she said.
And his gentle protectiveness does not stop at detecting seizures. Charlie also takes care of Brianna when other dogs get boisterous and he stands by her side to ensure she doesn't get knocked over.
He will also guide her into the safety of the ditch when the postman comes up the drive.
"You have to see it to believe it," says Arabella.
In the US and the UK there are specially trained 'seizure alert dogs'.
However, Charlie just picked up all the skills on his own. Exactly how dogs can sense a seizure is about to occur remains a mystery – however, there are theories.
One is that there may be micro expressions or cues that a dog can pick up which precede a seizure, or a particular scent generated which a dog can be sensitive to.
Or it may be that the dog can sense disturbances in the electric field that are caused by a seizure.
ARABELLA has now joined forces with Deirdre Cullinan, from Ahane, whose daughter, Mia (3), is also being treated for epilepsy, to raise €18,000 for a new Ambulatory EEG machine sanctioned by the University Hospital, Limerick (UHL).
The two women met in UHL while their daughters were getting treatment and are on a mission to buy this machine.
Arabella is hosting a Fun Ride with the help of the East Clare Harriers Hunt on Sunday, October 13, starting at 12 noon at Smith O'Brien's GAA field.
With one in 115 people suffering from epilepsy, this EEG machine will benefit a large number of children in the Mid-West. The mobile recording unit can be worn for 24 hours, which significantly increases the chance of identifying the area of the brain where a seizure is happening.
With a brain's electrical activity fluctuating from second to second, routine EEGs only provide a 20 to 40-minute sample of this activity.