This article was originally published on dLife.com—a website dedicated to helping people with diabetes live happier and healthier lives—as "Dogs Trained to Detect Hypos Could be Lifesavers," and is reposted with permission from the author.
For years, scientists and big pharma have tried to capitalize on the perfect non-invasive monitoring device. Something that would revolutionize the way people tested their blood sugar without having to prick their finger. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent and years of effort have been invested.
Could it be, however, that the best non-invasive blood-sugar monitoring device is… a dog? Quite possible! Dogs are becoming a resource for people with diabetes—not to measure their blood sugar, but, instead to save their life.
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Here's What Experts Have Been ‘Barking' About
Much like a guide dog for visually impaired people, it is suggested that dogs can be of assistance to people suffering low blood sugars. Diabetic Medicine reported a case of a dog being able to detect hypoglycemia in its owner who was driving a vehicle. Earlier, in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), researchers said that dogs could be a solution for detecting low blood sugars. And all the way back in a 1992 issue of Diabetic Medicine, researchers studied 50 people with diabetes who owned a dog. Thirty-eight percent of the people said their dog had at some point responded to a low-blood-sugar episode by barking or alerting someone.
Ralph Hendrix is the director of business operations for Dogs For Diabetics, Inc. (dogs4diabetics.com) — a Concord, California-based company that trains dogs to alert their owners who have diabetes that they are, in fact, going low. Hendrix says that the company's dogs are trained to identify a scent obtained from a person with diabetes when he or she is undergoing a blood sugar below 70 mg/dl (3.8 mmol).
"The training is done with a variety of scents for the dog to smell, and then they must find the one that we are training them to identify," says Hendrix. "As the dog learns to recognize that particular scent, they are trained to react in a certain way to his handler. It may be taught to sit and stare at the person; to touch the person with their nose, or to jump up on them."
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‘My Dog Has Saved My Life More Than Once'
Breanne Harris is one such client. Harris has type 1 diabetes and acquired a service dog in the summer of 2006 to alert her to hypoglycemic reactions she was having.
"My dog [Destiny] has saved my life more than once since getting her," says Harris, who admits to being skeptical of the Dogs for Diabetic programs at first. "…I have not had a single episode of extreme hypoglycemia. What was once commonplace has not happened in nearly a year. In fact, the first time Destiny woke me up with a dropping blood sugar, I cried. I was amazed that this whole thing—my efforts, her training, everything, came together and worked."
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But Some Owners Are Not Happy With Their Canine Experience
Marisa Rinkel of Aurora, Colorado, is one person who was not happy with the experience of purchasing a dog to help her son, Jason, who has type 1 diabetes. Jason's older brother, Mark Rinkel, raised thousands of dollars to purchase a dog from Heaven Scent Paws to help alert Jason when he was having blood-sugar complications. Ultimately, the dog that the Rinkel's purchased was not able to detect when Jason was going low.
"I would highly recommend that anyone getting a dog find out the exact training level," says Marisa Rinkel. "If the dog can't mitigate the disability, it's considered a service dog in training. A service dog, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, has been specifically trained to mitigate a disability. According to experts, the dog we received from Heaven Scent Paws did not have the training or the potential to learn."
Marisa adds that the temperament of the dog is also very important.
"Some of the dogs in my training class from Heaven Scent Paws had some ability to detect low blood sugar, but their temperament disqualified them because they couldn't work in public, snapped or bit at family and friends."
Marisa adds that in a situation where paramedics might be needed, a dog with the wrong type of temperament could refuse to allow medical help to reach the person with diabetes.
"The dog we received, according to experts, had the worst type of temperament possible – a fear-bite risk. An aggressive dog will at least give warning before biting. A fear-bite risk dog just bites. We had no choice but to return the dog after he bit my son."
Marisa says that Jason feels the entire experience with Heaven Scent Paws was worse than having diabetes. The Rinkels have since received a new dog named Red donated by
a family who had heard of their situation with their former dog. According to Marisa, Red, who did not come fully trained, is doing a great job as a diabetic-alert dog. For his trained signal, he sits and gives a little whisper bark. If no one responds he will bark louder and louder.
"I like this signal because I can hear it at night or if my son is playing in the back yard," says Marisa. "With the right dog and the right trainer, a diabetic-alert service dog absolutely can save lives." The family continues to work on completing Red's training.
Following the allegations made by the Rinkel family, Heaven Scent Paws issued a press release saying, "Heaven Scent Paws, Inc. vehemently denies the allegations of the Missouri Attorney General's Office, and is committed to fighting the harmful and false allegations that have been made against us." Heaven Scent Paws says the claims that led to the lawsuit come from, "The complaints of a few unreasonable and disgruntled families."
About the Rinkel's dog, Heaven Scent Paws says, "The contract informs them that when the dog comes home… the dog will not be fully trained. If these folks want to say, 'Well, we didn't know that,' they signed a contract that says it."
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It Usually Takes A Dog Six Months To Be Trained
Hendrix says properly training the dog to identify the scent and then working with a handler who has diabetes to properly alert takes from six months to one year.
"That also includes training the client and the dog in proper obedience training, so that the dog can be in public places," says Hendrix, adding that dogs trained at Dogs for Diabetes, Inc. cost upward to $25,000. "That includes the breeding, raising, early obedience training, specialized scent training and the training of the diabetic client."