Sophie Mullins of Paradise, Newfoundland, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when she became seriously ill at the age of 18 months. Her parents, Heidi Pavelka and Jamie Mullins, worried about her constantly, since her blood sugar can drop without warning, putting her at risk of hypoglycemia. “Sophie doesn’t feel her lows—she could have low blood sugar and be running around the house as if everything is normal,” says Pavelka. Their worries were alleviated thanks to a new addition to the family: a six-month-old black Labrador retriever named Peaches, a diabetes alert dog who has been trained over several years to detect Sophie’s low blood sugar levels and get help when she needs it. (Note: At six months the dog moves in with the patient’s family to begin the training process.)
Gail Maki, a mother of two inTisdale, Saskatchewan, has lived with type 1 diabetes for over 30 years, since being diagnosed when she was 12. Her mother still calls her to check in on her, and her husband Roy, who works out of town during the week, texts her regularly. Maki looked forward to receiving a diabetes alert dog, because the pooch brought her and her family some much-needed peace of mind. “When you have a disease like diabetes, it affects the whole family. This dog isn’t just for me; it’s for everyone around me.”
These two families were among the first in Canada to benefit from diabetes alert dogs provided by Virginia-based Warren Retrievers, an organization that has placed diabetes alert dogs in North American homes (and one of the few sources of these dogs in Canada). The company was founded by Dan Warren, a retired U.S. marine who has type 1 diabetes and who used to train bomb-sniffing dogs. “Diabetic alert dogs are an extra tool to help manage diabetes,” says Warren, who notes that these dogs can detect the onset of seizures 20 minutes or more in advance and can sense blood sugar fluctuations up to 45 minutes beforehand.
Sniffing out the warning signs
Service dogs have been used for decades to assist people who are blind. Now they are helping people with diabetes by using their highly sensitive scent capabilities to detect changes in blood chemistry that can indicate low blood sugar levels. (Humans have about five million olfactory cells; dogs may have more than 200 million, making their noses 1,000 times more sensitive than human noses.)
Some people with diabetes may not notice the warning signs associated with low blood sugar, such as becoming light-headed or drowsy, having a rapid heart rate, feeling sweaty, having blurred or double vision, and losing consciousness.
Those who suffer from hypoglycemia unawareness—the inability to recognize symptoms of severe glucose lows—do not readily feel the effects of a change in their blood sugar and are, therefore, at risk of life-threatening seizures and complications, especially while they are asleep.
Diabetes alert dogs—mostly retrievers—can smell blood sugar dropping or spiking out of range in advance of a crisis and are trained to lick, paw, and nudge their owners and keep alerting them until the condition is corrected or they get the help they need. These dogs can also be trained to pick up and carry objects such as a medicine kit or juice bottle, or, remarkably, even dial 911 on a special phone pad in case of emergency.
There is emerging research to back up the idea that dogs can detect hypoglycemia. A 2008 study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that even untrained dogs showed behavioural reactions to hypoglycemic episodes in their owners who had type 1 diabetes. And a presentation at the American Diabetes Association in 2012 revealed the results of a study in which an individual with type 1 diabetes was matched with a dog trained to detect hypoglycemia; the researchers reported that the dog was able to detect the onset of hypoglycemia and alert the individual to take precautionary measures.
The number of people using alert dogs is limited by the expense and time it takes to train both the dog and the client, and waiting lists can be months long. Warren Retrievers sends its trainers to the home of the person with diabetes for days-long training sessions over the course of two years, during which the dogs are “scent-trained” to work with the individual. Heidi Pavelka paid $25,000 for her daughter’s dog, having managed to raise the money over three years through various fundraising efforts. (After a story about her efforts appeared in a local newspaper, one generous donor contributed $8,000.) Diabetes alert dogs are available through several Canadian organizations including Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides and Dogs4Diabetics.
Benefits of diabetes service dogs
A good night’s sleep: People with diabetes can rest easy, knowing that their dog is trained to alert them to a dramatic change in blood sugar levels.
Less stress: Parents can’t be with their child every minute of the day. With a diabetes service dog as a constant companion, they know their child is being monitored. A service dog also brings peace of mind to people with diabetes who live alone and worry about what might happen if they experience severe glucose swings.
A more normal life: For people with diabetes, something as simple as taking a walk by themselves can be risky if their blood sugar drops. With a diabetes service dog by their side, they can enjoy a broad range of activities worry-free.
A more active life: Studies show that dog owners engage in more physical activity than those without a four-legged friend. A 2010 study in the American Journal of Public Health revealed kids with dogs spent more time doing moderate to vigorous physical activity than those without dogs. And the same goes for adults—a 2006 study from the University of Victoria in B.C. revealed that dog owners walked an average of 300 minutes per week, compared with non-dog owners who only walked an average of 168 minutes per week.
A loyal companion: These dogs are trained to be an ever-vigilant friend for their owner with diabetes.