Dogs possess an incredibly powerful sense of smell. That’s why we use these impressive animals to detect the presence of drugs, explosives, and other contraband, ultimately helping to keep society safer. Dogs’ sense of smell is also being used to help people with diabetes.
A recently published paper found that trained diabetic alert dogs (DADs) were able to detect odors that diabetic individuals produce when in a hypoglycemic (low blood sugar) state. Some experienced DAD trainers suggest that trained dogs can identify changes in a diabetic’s chemistry derived from his breath or sweat 15-30 minutes before it can be detected by traditional intermittent glucose monitoring (the type of monitoring used by most people with diabetes). However, another recently published paper found that there was a high false positive rate of dog alerts in Type 1 diabetics and that the less commonly used continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) was able to detect hypoglycemia much earlier. Despite this finding, the same study showed that dog users were very satisfied and largely confident in their dog’s ability to detect hypoglycemia.
Once the service dog detects the potential problem, they alert their owner by pawing, barking, or other behaviors. The dog can even be taught to fetch a cell phone for his person. This allows the owner to take the necessary steps and precautions to prevent an issue. He is also taught to alert other people in the household if his owner experiences an issue and cannot respond because he is confused or even unconscious. Such highly trained canines could save many lives.
Theoretically, any dog could learn to become a diabetic service dog, but in reality, several breeds dominate the field. These include:
- Golden retrievers
- Labrador retrievers
- Golden/Lab/poodle mixes – Goldendoodles and Labradoodles
What these breeds or crosses share in common is intelligence, trainability, and a first-rate sense of smell. Goldens and Labs can perform all types of service work; including guide dogs for the blind, search-and-rescue canines, and therapy dogs. Often dismissed as “frou-frou” dogs because of their fancy coat trims, poodles rank among the smartest and most eager to please of all breeds. Poodles and their crossbred relatives prove especially suitable for those that suffer from allergies or share a home with an allergic person. While no breed is truly hypoallergenic, the poodle’s hair may not trigger allergies in those affected by other types of canines.
Training doesn’t start for diabetic service dogs until they reach at least 6 months old. That’s adolescence in dog time when they are no longer puppies but have several months to go before reaching adulthood. Training can take a year or more and most dogs receive placement between the ages of 18 and 24 months.
The first step involves obedience training—a must for any dog. Beyond the basic obedience lessons, diabetic alert dogs learn a series of hand signals and verbal commands. The patient later learns these signals and commands for dealing with the dog.
Because diabetic alert dogs are service dogs, they receive standard service dog training. This includes going out in public places, including malls, restaurants, and office buildings. The dog learns to travel—and behave—on buses, trains, and other forms of public transportation. As a service dog, your diabetic alert dog can accompany you anywhere you go, as per the American with Disabilities Act.
If the dog succeeds at these first two phases, it’s on to specific diabetes scent recognition. The animal is trained to recognize body scents at different blood sugar levels. When a blood sugar level falls below 80 or climbs above 150, the dogs is schooled to alert the patient.
Dogs “notify” their owner when blood sugar is amiss. This may consist of pawing, barking, or some other type of signal. Keep in mind that a diabetic service dog in the house does not mean you don’t have to check your blood glucose monitor after a signal. You must always use the device to confirm your dog’s notification.
Training your family dog
If you already have a dog, there’s a possibility he or she could undergo successful training for diabetic service dogs, but the odds are against it. Dogs require exceptional scenting ability, good temperaments, and a strong work ethic for potential consideration. If you think your dog could make the grade, contact an agency specializing in diabetic service dogs for an evaluation of your pet. If they’re a good fit, he must complete an intensive, months-long training course.
On the other side of the coin, adding a diabetic alert dog to a household containing other canines poses challenges. If your non-service dogs behave well and act as good canine citizens, adding a highly trained diabetic alert dog to the mix can work. If your dogs don’t get along with fellow canines or indulge in bad behaviors, a diabetic alert dog may not focus on his job.
Obtaining a dog
Since the demand for diabetic alert dogs outstrips the supply, you may have to wait a while to obtain such a dog. Furthermore, training these dogs is an expensive proposition, and an outright purchase may cost $35-40,000. Many people simply don’t have that kind of money available to spend. Fortunately, there are non-profit organizations that raise funds for dog training and placement, and their fees are much lower.
Because of the high demand for diabetic alert dogs, unscrupulous people may try to take advantage. These people can pass off poorly trained canines as the genuine article. Normally, wait times for a diabetic alert dog last a year or more. If someone promises you a diabetic alert dog immediately, that’s a red flag. Do your research and make sure you deal with a reputable organization. A good organization spends a considerable amount of time ensuring you and the dog communicate well. Additionally, they have trainers available for reinforcement lessons over time.
With diabetic alert dogs, patients have a four-legged best friend and a companion looking out for their health 24/7.
This was first published on Companion Animals on 09/26/16. It has been modified and republished here with the author’s permission.