Diabetic alert dogs, valuable service canines, are able to sense changes in human blood sugar. When diabetics experience a drop or rise in their blood sugar, these dogs give a signal so their owners can bring their sugar levels back in line. Sometimes called hypoglycemic alert dogs, these service animals undergo intensive training and typically are paired with their diabetic owners for life.
Diabetes, an autoimmune disease that causes the pancreas to make too little or no insulin, creates shifts in blood sugar that can be life threatening. Properly trained diabetic alert dogs can help save an owner’s life by alerting to a change in blood sugar before the patient is even aware of it, including in the middle of the night. This ability frees diabetic adults and children to live with less fear of dangerous blood-sugar drops or spikes. According to Dogs4Diabetics, the breeds most often used for this work include the same ones used in other service duties: golden and Labrador retrievers and occasionally others, including German shepherds.
Sensing Blood Sugar
With their superior scenting abilities, diabetic service dogs can sense chemical changes that take place when a person’s blood sugar goes too high or low. According to the research organization Cancer and Bio-detection Dogs, when a person experiences high blood sugar, dogs can detect a scent change on the patient’s breath. As for low blood-sugar episodes, the research group says scent somehow is involved, although it is not clear if a lowering of blood sugar leads to different breath changes or the absence of a smell dogs are used to scenting.
Diabetic alert dogs go through rigorous obedience training before starting specific diabetes-sensing training. At Dogs4Diabetics, handlers begin by sensitizing dogs to diabetic smells by using overturned buckets. Once dogs can find the right smells atop these buckets, the animals move on to associating these smells with people. Finally, the dogs are trained to go to a diabetic person on whom they scent blood-sugar changes, retrieve a specific small object and deliver it to the patient. This allows the owner to distinguish between a dog gently bumping as a blood-sugar alert--the object is the clue--from a dog bumping or pawing for other reasons. Other organizations train dogs to ring bells or adopt specific stances so there's a clear signal to owners when blood-sugar changes are taking place.
According to the Americans With Disabilities Act, retail businesses, including restaurants, hotels, theaters, medical offices and shops, must allow access to service dogs, including diabetic alert dogs. Retailers are not allowed to segregate a person and his service dog from other areas where customers are allowed. The U.S. Department of Transportation requires airlines to permit service dogs in flight with their owners, according to the Aviation Consumer Protection and Enforcement division. Check with your local operator to see if service dogs are allowed on local trains.
Scientists have been aware of canine blood sugar-sensing abilities for some time. According to the American Diabetes Association, a 2000 study published in the British Medical Journal reported three cases of untrained dogs who could predict low blood-sugar episodes. These animals jumped or ran around the house, paced, got owners out of bed or behaved in other ways to let their unsuspecting human companions know they were about to experience hypoglycemic episodes. Since these dogs had not been trained to formally alert their owners by retrieving special objects or ringing bells, researchers concluded that some canines are naturally able to discern blood-sugar changes and will alert in whatever way seems natural to them.