Q: We met another child at our diabetes clinic who has a diabetes alert dog. How do these dogs assist children with type 1, and how are they trained? I’m intrigued!
A: Diabetes alert dogs (DADs) are service dogs trained to react to a scent produced by their human partner when he or she experiences low or high blood sugars, often picking up on these changes before any outward symptoms appear. A diabetes alert dog does not replace blood sugar testing but is there 24/7 to catch lows and highs that happen outside normal testing times, such as overnight. For example, a DAD assigned to a child may be trained to wake a parent up at night if a low is detected; if the dog is working with a grown-up, it may nudge its owner until he or she responds.
This may sound amazing, and science is still figuring out the exact scent dogs are able to pick up on. But the training of a DAD is pretty straightforward. When we begin working with a family, we request that parents send a saliva sample (in the form of a saliva-soaked cotton ball) from a time when their child’s blood sugar was below 75 mg/mL. We then play various scent-detection games with the dog and reward through positive reinforcement when the dog detects the scent of the low. Among the most commonly chosen breed of dogs to undergo this training are Labrador retrievers. When you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. Labradors are known as good duck-hunting dogs, but instead of ducks, we’re teaching them to hunt diabetes.
The second part of the training process is helping the child and dog become acclimated to each other. We do a few on-site visits with the family and then leave the dog in service to the child for a two- to three-week trial run. When dogs do alert, it is important to check the child’s blood sugar with a glucometer to verify accuracy. There can be mistakes and missteps during these first few weeks. This is normal, however, and with feedback from the trainer, most problems are corrected. After the trial run, the dog is returned to complete the remainder of its training at our facility. Once this is complete, we deliver the dog for final placement with another four- to five- day training period with the child and family.
It can be a big adjustment for some families to welcome a DAD into their lives. Unlike a family pet, the relationship with a working service dog is more structured — focus is a big part of the dog’s job! But there is still room for relaxing and having fun — and lots of snuggling. We frequently check in to see how the dogs are doing, and DADs are recertified every year during our annual workshop.
Interested in partnering your child with a DAD? First, do some soul-searching about whether a service dog is a good fit for your child and your family — and then do your homework before deciding to work with a particular DAD-training facility. The stakes are high for what these dogs are trained to do, and it can take a considerable investment of time and money on your part to bring a dog into your child’s life. Be wary of for-profit facilities that promise a quick turnaround on getting you a dog, charge exorbitant rates, or are not upfront about their own training experience. At our nonprofit facility, for example, we have a two-year waiting list for DADs. Yes, it’s a long time, but we also believe that good things come to those who wait.
One of our families shared that on a recent trip to Disneyland®, their daughter’s dog Brutis, who was waiting below with the girl’s mother, alerted her to a low blood sugar when the child was on the Splash Mountain ride with her father. When the ride was over, they checked her blood sugar, and sure enough, her number was 58.
It will be interesting to see what science turns up about how this kind of long-distance alerting can even happen. But what we know right now is that DADs are another tool that can be added to the toolbox to allow for better management of diabetes. DADs do come with a huge commitment. They are not for everyone, but for those willing to put the time and effort into working with these amazing animals, the payoff can be well worth it.
“We’ve had our dog Gracie for two years, and I still get chills when she picks up on a low reading that none of us saw coming. In no way does a DAD replace our own checks and monitoring, but I like to think of Gracie as our daughter’s personal guardian angel!”
–Laurie S., Oklahoma City, Okla., mom of 8-year-old Kasey
Disclaimer: The information in these articles is not intended as medical advice. Families should check with their healthcare professionals regarding individual care.