A Diabetics Best Friend

Guide dogs, watch dogs, hearing dogs, mobility assist dogs,  lap dogs, big dogs, small dogs – SRxA’s Word on Health readily admits to a fondness for them all.

So it’s hardly surprising that we were drawn to a story about Early Alert Canines, a non-profit group in California that is training man’s best friend to detect the subtle scents of low blood sugars and matching them with Type 1 diabetics.

These diabetic alert dogs are trained to recognize the biochemical scent that a diabetic’s body gives off as his or her blood glucose begins to change. The dogs learn that this biochemical scent is a command to the dogs for them to carry out an “alert” action – an early warning that can help their human partners avoid acutely dangerous hypoglycemia, and hyperglycemia.

Because hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) can cause severe problems including coma and death, and because hyperglycemia can contribute to long-term diabetes complications, these early warnings, allow diabetics to check their blood glucose levels and treat themselves appropriately. Thus, these amazing dogs are a not only a diabetic’s best friend, they also become life-changers and life-savers.

Although medical technology makes it possible for diabetics to regularly their own blood sugar levels, there are many times when such checks are problematic or even impossible; during sleep or during intense exercise, school work, or business meetings. Early Alert Canines, on the other hand, are always on alert for their insulin-dependent partners, ready to warn them about critical changes in their blood sugar levels.

We can’t smell it … It gets down to a molecular level,” says organization executive director Carol Edwards, noting the detection of a “cocktail of chemicals,” such as acetone, adrenaline and endorphins, which are released into the bloodstream as a diabetic’s glucose is dropping.

One person benefitting from the program is Nancy Harrison from California. Over a period of 17 years, paramedics have been dispatched on numerous occasions to revive her during hypoglycemic episodes. Instead of being woken by strangers in blue, wielding an IV and bag of dextrose 50%, when her glucose level starts to plummet.
she now finds an 80-pound yellow Labrador on her chest, alerting her the fact.
He gets in my face … he’ll plow me down to get me to pay attention to him,” says Harrison, about her dog Kade.

Trained initially by Guide Dogs for the Blind, Kade preferred to eat paper towels, socks and dryer sheets making him unsuitable for the sight-impaired. But when it comes to alerting Harrison, he is all business. When he  commutes with her to work he will put his head on her shoulder and start licking her face if her blood sugar starts to drop.

Early Alert Canines (EAC) trains two main classes of diabetic alert dogs: full-access service dogs and skilled companion dogs.

Full Access Service Dogs are trained and placed with diabetic adults and children age 12 and older. These dogs are fully trained diabetic alert dogs and attend work, school, extracurricular activities, errands, etc., with their diabetic partners. These dogs are accredited service dogs and can legally accompany their diabetic partners anywhere the general public is allowed. Full Access Service Dogs are perfect for people who can commit to having a dog with them all hours of the day.

Skilled Companion Alert Dogs are trained and placed with diabetic children, families with multiple diabetics, and some adults who find a service dog won’t fit into their lifestyle. Skilled Companion Alert Dogs are fully trained in hypoglycemic alerting, and do most of their work in the diabetic’s home, but do not have public access rights.

In order to qualify for the program potential dog owners must be insulin-dependent diabetes who have been using insulin for at least one year and diligently manage their diabetes. EAC is keen to point out that their dogs are not for people who are not attempting to closely control their diabetes. The application process involves an online application, paper applications, a phone interview, a home visit and orientation. There is an application fee of $100.

If approved, the diabetic attends Team Training, during which the diabetic may be matched up with a dog that the staff determines to be a good fit for the individual’s needs. Diabetics seeking placement with a skilled companion attend a one-week course, and diabetics seeking full access service dogs attend a two-week course.

For more information about these very special dogs and the Early Alert Canine program click here.

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