Diabetes is a serious chronic condition in which a person’s blood glucose levels are prone to becoming too high. Type 2 diabetes is by far the most common form of the disease, and it’s caused by the body not properly using insulin. Type 1 diabetes is typically diagnosed in children and young adults, and it only accounts for about 5 percent of all diabetes cases. This type is caused by a failure to naturally produce insulin.
There’s no cure for either type of diabetes, but they can usually be well managed. Management is important, because the disease can cause significant complications, such as major damage to the cardiovascular system, kidneys, nerves, eyes, feet, skin, and cognitive function; it can be fatal.
One of the most important parts of successfully managing diabetes is closely monitoring your blood sugar levels. If they spike too high—or if they fall too low in response to treatment with insulin—it can cause seizures, loss of consciousness, and other problems. Self-monitoring blood sugar levels, however, generally requires taking and testing a blood sample, which is painful and inconvenient.
This is where diabetic alert dogs, also known as diabetic service dogs, come in.
Diabetic Service Dog Tasks
Canines have an amazing sense of smell. It’s so strong, in fact, that it can detect changes that take place in the human body when blood glucose levels shoot too high or fall too low. We actually don’t fully understand exactly what scent diabetic alert dogs pick up on, but we know they can be trained to pick it up quite reliably nonetheless.
It’s been widely held that diabetic alert dogs pick up on chemical changes in the saliva that relate to changes in blood sugar levels. Recent research has also found a chemical called isoprene that increases in hypoglycemic (low blood sugar) events that we release through breathing. It’s been theorized that this may be part of how diabetic service dogs accomplish this part of their job, but we still don’t know.
Diabetic alert dogs are trained using positive reinforcement techniques to bring blood sugar level changes to their human partner’s attention. They do so before blood glucose reaches crisis levels, thus preventing complications and, over time, reducing the damage the disease does to the body.
These life-changing dogs are also trained for “night alerts,” which means they’ll wake their partner up should blood sugar levels start changing too much during sleep. They can also be taught to signal for help in the event of a medical emergency.
How Do the Dogs Alert People?
People unfamiliar with assistance dogs often assume that diabetic service dogs simply bark to alert their partner of blood sugar changes. But it’s important that assistance dogs are quiet and non-disruptive in public, so they’re actually trained not to bark.
Instead, alert dogs usually use their snouts to nudge their partner’s hand and do so more aggressively as needed. Sometimes, they are taught to sit and stare in a particular way, and in other instances bells or other signaling tools are used. Whenever possible, though, silent methods are preferred.
Acquiring a Diabetic Alert Dog
Diabetic service dogs, like all the other types of assistance dogs, change lives for the better. If you believe you or a loved one would benefit from one of these amazing canines, it’s definitely worth investigating.
It’s important to remember that, while these dogs are astoundingly accurate, they aren’t fail-proof. When acquired through a skilled, reputable trainer, diabetic alert dogs may be only partially accurate at first, but they quickly become almost entirely accurate after getting to know their new partner for a few weeks. These working companions are great for managing diabetes, but they aren’t a total substitute for blood monitoring tools and other precautions.
Take a look at the following articles to help decide whether you might want to pursue a partnership with a diabetic service dog, and how to get started if you do:
- Is an Assistance Dog Right for You?
- How to Choose a Reputable Service Dog Provider
- Choosing an Assistance Dog Breed