From emotional support to detecting seizures, service dogs are valuable companions for helping their owners for medical purposes—including migraine.

Service dogs are intelligent animal companions trained for a wide variety of medical needs. And for many living with migraine, service dogs can provide support and warning for incoming migraine attacks.

We sat down with Gelcys Castaneda and spoke with her about her experiences with her migraine service dog Lyssa. Gelcys lives with migraine, but that has not stopped her from living a fulfilling life and running two marathons, seven half-marathons, one Goofy challenge, and countless 5K races. With Lyssa, she is able to prepare for her migraine attacks before they happen. Learn from Gelcys and Lyssa how a migraine-alert dog works and how it could help you, too.

Gelcys and Lyssa 3

How Do Migraine Service Dogs Detect Migraine?

For individuals living with migraine, detecting early signs of an incoming attack is incredibly helpful. It gives the person time to prepare and manage plans and work before the attack occurs. This is where a migraine service dog can help.

Migraine service dogs are essentially an early warning system. They are trained to let their owners know about incoming attacks. These dogs also often accompany their owners at all times. They pay attention to and pick up any changes in their owner, particularly through scents.

Dogs have a remarkably acute sense of smell–about 10,000 to 100,000 times better than a human’s sense of smell. Because of this, trainers and users suspect that the dogs are able to detect chemical changes in human breath that indicate when a migraine attack will occur. In fact, they can detect a migraine attack as early as 48 hours before it occurs.

Because they spend so much time with their owners and have acute senses, migraine service dogs also pick up behavior changes in their owners that signal incoming migraine attacks. The dog then alerts their human to allow time to prepare for the attack. Migraine service dogs have various gestures to notify their owner of an oncoming migraine, such as licking hands or faces, nudging with their noses and barking to gain attention.

Where can I find a migraine service dog?

Contact a service dog training organization and inquire if they train migraine alert dogs. These places often have training-and-boarding services and group classes that teach dogs how to use gestures and cues to signal their owners about their migraine attacks.

When considering a service dog, it is important to remember that not every service dog is the same. Each dog has its own unique personality. Their breed should also be taken into account. For example, if your symptoms are more severe and affect your mobility, a larger breed, such as Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, and German Shepherds, may be more suitable to help you with daily tasks. If your symptoms are more manageable and you are looking for just the migraine attack signaling, a smaller breed like a Beagle, Pomeranian and Cavalier King Charles Spaniel would probably be more beneficial for you.

While the above-mentioned breeds are typically more suited to be migraine service dogs, this does not mean other breeds cannot be service dogs. Lyssa, for example, is a Doberman.

If the organization does not offer training for your dog’s particular breed, you could also look into hiring a personal trainer.

You could also train your dog independently. There is an advantage to this in that you can train your dog to develop unique gestures that are suitable for you. You would not have to learn a pre-trained dog’s cues. You also would not have to comply with an organization’s requirements, schedules, and fixed training courses.

Gelcys trained Lyssa herself. Lyssa was already in-tune with Gelcys’ well-being. She’d behave strangely whenever her owner was sick. Gelcys recounted how they discovered Lyssa’s potential to be a migraine service dog when they brought her to a friend who trained service dogs. Lyssa had walked off and sat in front of a woman on a bench. The trainer asked the woman if she was getting a migraine. And sure enough, the woman answered that she was sitting for that very reason and was about to take her migraine medication.

The trainer confirmed that Lyssa had the potential to be a migraine-alert dog. Gelcys trained Lyssa by reinforcing certain behaviors and gestures until she could carry out the necessary cues.

“When a migraine comes, she starts to lick my hands,” Gelcys explains about how Lyssa alerts her of migraine attacks. “She licks my face.”

In addition to letting Gelcys know about an upcoming migraine attack, Lyssa was also trained to do deep pressure therapy (DPT). DPT is when a service animal lays their body weight on their owner to calm them down and prevent them from moving to hurt themselves. Lyssa is also in the process of learning how to retrieve medication.

How much does a migraine service dog cost?

Service dogs typically range anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000, but Gelcys says she has even seen them go for $1,000. Many insurance companies generally do not cover them, especially for migraine service dogs.

Be sure to double-check with your doctor and insurance company if a service dog can be covered as part of your plan. Ask your doctor for resources that can help you with the process.

Speak with trainers, your doctor, and migraine service dog owners about the benefits of owning a dog to help with migraine and determine if the cost would be worth it for your circumstances.

A migraine service dog can be a great companion for those who have migraine. They can alert their owners about incoming attacks to help them prepare. If you live with migraine, consider getting a migraine alert dog to prepare for attacks and take control of your life.

The American Migraine Foundation is committed to improving the lives of those living with this debilitating disease. For more of the latest news and information on migraine, visit the AMF Resource Library. For help finding a healthcare provider, check out our Find a Doctor tool. Together, we are as relentless as migraine.