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Diabetes Alert Dogs to the Rescue

If you have hypoglycemic unawareness, a service dog can truly be your best friend.

If you’re among the 40% of people with diabetes who have hypoglycemic unawareness—a condition in which you don't realize your blood sugar is dangerously low—a service dog can help keep you safe.

Diabetic Alert Dogs, also known as DADs, often wear a backpack containing medical info, a sugar source for their owners in case of a low blood sugar event and emergency contact information. They have a keen sense of smell that can detect fluctuations in sugar levels often before a blood glucose monitor can.

diabetes alert dogs Luke Nuttall, 7, has type 1 diabetes and hypoglycemic unawareness. His trusty alert dog Jedi keeps him safe by alerting him to dangerous lows.

These dogs undergo a rigorous scent training program that’s similar to the training methods used to train drug sniffing or search and rescue dogs.

"Ultimately our diabetic alert dogs are trained to alert their owner to a high or low blood sugar," says Kelly Camm, development director of 4 Paws for Ability, a service dog agency that specializes in offering trained service dogs to children and veterans, in Xenia, Ohio.

If the dog senses that its owner has a sugar level that’s too high (or too low), it will alert the person right away. Diabetic service dogs are also trained to test breath for low blood sugar, pick up and carry objects such as juice bottles, retrieve cell phones and act as a brace to help a person who may have fallen down.

“For the most part, our trained dogs will either lick the person or sit in front of him and bark if they detect fluctuations in blood sugar levels,” Camm says.

However, some diabetic service dog training companies say that a bark is not a desired primary. That's because a bark can be very disruptive and stressful and service dogs can actually be asked to leave public places for barking. 

If it’s a child who is diabetic, the dog—which might be a golden retriever, lab or even a Papillon (a small toy breed)—may be trained to use a paw, or bring a toy to the child’s parents, or bark, depending on the facility that trained him.

“The parent then knows to help the child test his or her blood sugar,” Camm says. “If if the child needs rescue meds, a shot or something to eat, that’s the next step.”

The Nuttall family of Los Angeles is well acquainted with the benefits of having a diabetes alert dog. Their son Luke, 7, has a fury friend named Jedi that assists them in the non-stop care needed for a person living with type 1 diabetes like their son. Luke was diagnosed in 2011 and is hypoglycemic unaware.The family felt having a DAD would give them an extra safeguard. Jedi was trained by an organization called Canine Hope for Diabetics.

Mom Dorrie says that Luke is a deep sleeper and has never woken up on his own from an alarm triggered by unsafe glucose levels. Like a vigilant guardian, Jedi keeps watch during the night and alerted Dorrie recently to the nightmare of a potentially serious low blood sugar level that could have become life threatening were it not for the dog’s intervention.

Sensing the drop in blood glucose Jedi tried to stir Dorrie out of her sleep by frantically jumping on and off the bed. Dorrie woke briefly and noticed Jedi bow which is the way alert dogs are trained to show a low. (The position resembles what’s called a downward dog in yoga—front legs stretched way out in front, head low.) When she didn’t get out of bed, Jedi laid on her chest to indicate the situation was serious.

She described the experience on Facebook:

"I suddenly was fully awake and I knew there was an issue. I pricked (Luke’s) finger and got a 57 which is way too low, and by Jedi's behavior, I guarantee he was dropping fast. (Luke was still recovering from a stomach bug and anything under 70 is low.)

Without Jedi I would have had no idea that he was dropping out of a safe range. His continuous glucose monitor (CGM) would have caught up and alerted in the next 20 minutes or so and I set an alarm for an hour later to check again, but Jedi's early alerts help us prevent dangerous situations."

Dorrie says guide dogs are a helpful tool—not a substitute for a blood glucose monitor—though there are abundant reports that they alert their owners to problems sooner than the technology does. Jedi, like other DADs help to keep their owners safe and become trusted family members. As the Nuttall family will tell you, having a service dog enables them to rest more easily knowing they are utilizing every tool available.

In an effort to inform people about DADs—and to promote type 1 awareness—the Nuttall’s are the subject of a documentary being  produced by Lemon Tree Pictures. Here's the trailer for Luke & Jedi. 

DADs Not Right for Everyone

Finding an alert dog can be a long, expensive process. As with any other valuable purchase, it’s necessary for buyers to beware. Not all alert animals are equal, so a little up-front investigation is important before you commit to a service dog provider.

Many companies across the United States and around the world provide highly- trained dogs with proven abilities to detect blood glucose changes. Because hypoglycemia alert dogs are also service dogs, they wear service-dog vests when working and accompany their owners during all activities and in all locations—classrooms, workplaces, medical offices, malls, airports, and more.

No matter the situation, the dog should be capable of performing the job while staying as inconspicuous as possible. To get to that level, dogs undergo up to 2 years of full-time training. The time commitment required for training, as well as the price of food and veterinary care, drives the cost of alert dogs. The average fully trained alert dog comes with a price tag in the $20,000s.

Insurance companies typically do not cover the cost but according to the National Institute of Diabetic Alert Dogs, some health care plans do have medical spending accounts which you can draw from to offset the cost.

There are two types of alert dog providers: not-for-profit organizations and for-profit organizations. Not-for-profit organizations provide dogs at a very low cost, sometimes for free. They are able to do this by off-setting the cost of training through their own fund-raising efforts. The waiting lists for a dog at most not-for-profits are generally long: two to five years. For-profit companies price dogs based on the hours of training required and generally have much shorter wait times. Some for-profits provide fund-raising help and guidance, but for the most part, raising the funds to purchase a dog is the client’s responsibility.

Taylor Neher, 21, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when she was 8 months old. She was interested in learning more about alert dogs so volunteered to help train them with a group called Genesis Service Dogs in Boise, Idaho. She ended up training her own alert dog she calls Brava. As she points out diabetic alert dogs aren’t perfect and you can't rely on them completely. “You still have to test before you correct. Dogs can have off days and at times can be annoying. Like when you are sick and your sugar is off for a while—there is no "off" switch," she laughs. "They take a lot of work but they can be wonderful companions able to do amazing things.”

Taylor Neher has type 1 diabetes and wound up training her own diabetic alert dog she named Brava. The two are inseparable.

Her advice to anyone interested in getting an alert dog is to know that their training never ends. “If you think having a CGM beeping at you is annoying wait til you have a dog pawing you and bruising your arms and legs to get your attention and barking when you are asleep and your blood sugar is high,” she explains adding that Brava once stole her pillow to wake her up. “An alert dog has to be taken care of and is another tool to pay attention to but a lot of love and rewards come with the work involved.”

Taylor also warns potential DAD owners to be wary of scam organizations who want your money. “There is no legal or national registration that goes with having a service dog or obtaining a DAD so be a good consumer and do your homework.”

Doggies to the Rescue

In addition to the organizations mentioned above, here are two other reputable programs that train DADs: 

  • Can-Do-Canines: The diabetes assist dogs trained through this organization monitor smells in the air for specific scents on the breath and then alert an individual by pawing or nudging them. Canine partners can also be trained to retrieve juice or glucose tabs, get an emergency phone or get help from another person in the house.
  • Dogs4Diabetes: Using their razor sharp sense of smell, these dogs can detect when an owner is hypoglycemic and his or her blood sugar is dropping to a dangerous level. D4D service dogs go through 18 months of training before they’re matched with an individual in need.
First published on: March 17, 2016
Updated on: March 30, 2017
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