Hypoglycemia unawareness can be a serious problem in both children and adults who have Type 1 diabetes. Sleeping through a blood sugar low is dangerous and can result in serious complications. Luckily, there is a class of service dogs trained specifically to help people with diabetes avoid bouts of hypoglycemia. These trained dogs can sniff out lows and fast-dropping sugar levels, and alert people with diabetes or family members to take action.
Chemical changes in the body happen when there’s a rapid change in blood sugar. These chemical changes are emitted through the skin and breath. Although, the human nose is not able to detect these changes, a dog’s nose can. A dog has more than 200 million sensors in its nose, so it can be trained to perform certain behaviors when it detects the change in blood sugar levels.
The Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides program is the first official diabetes-related dog-training program introduced in Canada. Started in 2013, it currently is the only internationally-accredited program in the country. The dogs are trained by using samples of scents, says Natalie Moncur, communications manager at the Lions Foundation Dog Guides of Canada.
“Clients provide us with breath samples to work with in training their future dog guide,” Moncur says. “When the future client is experiencing a low, they breathe into a small container with the filter. The filter catches the scent of the low, and then these are used to train the dog to detect to the scent.”
Through the program, Hunter Dixon, a 10-year-old, was paired with Jackson, a standard poodle, and trained at the Lions Foundation facility in Oakville, Ontario. At the time, Hunter was one of the first recipients in Canada to have a diabetic alert dog guide. Twenty-month-old Jackson joined the family after undergoing extensive training. At the center, training work centered on establishing a bond between boy and dog.
“My mom and I stayed at the dog guide training facility and learned about the importance of bonding with our dogs, obedience commands, and special skills like fetching a juice box or getting help,” says Hunter. “We even got to take our dogs to the mall, a pet shop, and grocery store.”
Sandra Dixon, Hunter’s mom, says Jackson has improved Hunter’s quality of life. Having a dog guide not only gives Hunter a way to take ownership of his diabetes, it also provides her with peace of mind.
“As his mom, I feel so much better letting Hunter have some independence since he takes Jackson everywhere with him,” she says.
Jackson’s assistance will be particularly important at night, when low blood sugars can go dangerously untreated. Hunter says he’s amazed at how attuned Jackson is to detecting hypoglycemia.
“Jackson catches lows sometimes before I even feel them,” he says.
The Lions Foundation approval process is rigorous. Clients must be Canadian residents who are 10 years of age or older, have Type 1 diabetes, and experience frequent lows of at least three to four times week. After an application is accepted, the applicant will then be given a home assessment. If an application is approved, the Lions Foundation takes care of the fundraising for each placement.
“We take care of Jackson’s everyday needs and vet bills, but we didn’t have to pay for Jackson or any of his training,” says Sandra. “The Dog Guides of Canada did a ton of fundraising to make it possible for us to have Jackson at no cost.”
Although the Lions Foundation program is new for Canada, similar programs have existed in the U.S. for many years. Dogs4Diabetics (D4D), based in Concord, California, was started in 2004 by Mark Ruefenacht, who also has Type 1 diabetes. Since the program began, Ruefenacht says he’s been working hard to improve standards for dog guide training each year. He’s also endeavored to extend the program’s reach. For example, Dogs4Diabetics’ new program, Type-YOU, is for people who are interested in obtaining a dog but who first need better management of their diabetes. D4D also provides follow-up support with monthly meetings, one-on-one training, and in-home training for clients.
“We are empowering people with diabetes to live relentlessly awesome lives in safety,” Ruefenacht says.
Even with the support offered, success with a diabetes service dog depends on the willingness of clients to buy into the tenets of the program, says Ruefanacht. He says successful recipients of diabetes service dogs build and maintain a relationship with their dogs, participate in follow-up programs, ensure their dogs are treated like service dogs and not pets, and keep their dogs in good health.