Dogs Sniff Out Diabetes Crises

Diabetes: trained dogs monitor glucose levels.

Diabetes-alert dogs can help patients by providing advance notice of trending low and high blood-sugar levels in their owners before those levels can become dangerous. The dogs are trained through a lengthy and repetitive process for about eight months, based on a positive-reward training method. They also undergo basic obedience training, learning voice commands and hand signals, and receiving public access training, which desensitize the dogs to the distractions of worldly environments. They are also trained to smell the chemical changes produced by the human body associated with high and low blood-sugar levels, and are rewarded with treats for accurate alerts.

The idea of a cute furry glucose monitor evidentally has much appeal. Eight-year-old Emma Brussell from Long Island, New York, who has type 1 diabetes wanted one of these dogs, and began to sell her art online in order to finance the project. She ended up raising $15,000, according to a Newsday report. Brussell and her mother submitted an application to Diabetes Alert Dogs of America. She can be matched with a pet after spending eight to 10 weeks on a waiting list.

It can cost from $5,000 to $15,000 to train these dogs, Christy Weaver, Client Services Director at Diabetes Alert Dogs of America, said. And while any dog breed can be trained to alert an owner of changes in blood glucose levels, the Nevada-based organization prefers to use “sporting breeds” as designated by the American Kennel Club. Their most successful and favorite breeds, Weaver said, are the Labrador retriever, golden retriever, labradoodle, goldendoodle, and the standard poodle. They are typically matched with a patient when the dog reaches maturity, usually between the age of one to two years.

The dogs alert the patients by “pawing” at their leg when blood sugar spikes or drops outside of the target range (80 mg/dl to 150 mg/dl). They continue that action until blood sugar reaches a safe level, the company explained. If the patient is sleeping, the dog can jump on the patient’s bed to wake them up.

The dog knows when a patient’s blood sugar is outside of the target range based on saliva samples collected from the matched patient during the training process.

Of course, living with these animals is different tha having a pet. For example, as a working dog, Diabetes Alert Dogs of America explained, they have their attention fully on the patient for the first two months together. After that “attachment” period, patients may go out on their own, such as to a school dance, so the dog gets a break. But, as working dogs, these animals cannot be turned away from public places. When traveling on airplanes they get to sit at the patient’s feet instead of in the kennel or storage area of the plane.

In recent years, it has become more and more popular for diabetes patients to have a diabetes alert dog. The dogs are about 87% accurate in completing their jobs every day, Weaver said. Diabetes Alert Dogs of America also believes that these dogs can provide emotional security, a sense of balance, and help patients lead more confident and independent lifestyles.

The Newsday story is headlined "Farmingdale Girl Raises $15,000 for Diabetes Alert Dog."

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