Diabetic alert dogs can sniff out health problems
By Katie Scarvey
Kristen Farmer and Kimberly Eagle know all too well the physical and emotional pressures that accompany the caregiving required with having a child with type 1 diabetes.
The endless monitoring of blood sugar levels continues even at night, so caregivers are typically sleep-deprived, which adds to an already stressful existence.
But the Eagles and the Farmers have found hope in an unlikely form: a dog.
Service dogs are nothing new, of course. People are used to encountering seeing-eye dogs that help the sightless lead more normal lives.
But did you know that dogs can be trained to sniff out unhealthy blood sugar levels in humans — and alert them 20 minutes before a glucose monitoring system can?
That’s important because low blood sugar can result in coma; high blood sugar over an extended period of time can lead to kidney, liver, eye damage or stroke. If proper measures are not taken, high and low blood glucose levels can lead to death.
Amazingly, dogs can be trained to alert diabetics before they are in serious danger.
Humans have about 5 million nose receptors while dogs have about 250 million, says Dan Warren, a Virginia dog breeder whose business trains diabetic alert dogs. Warren is founder, president and CEO of Guardian Angel Service Dogs as well as owner of Warren Retrievers. Guardian Angel Service Dogs is the non-profit philanthropic arm of Warren Retrievers and helps with public awareness and funding for families like Abigail’s and Caden’s who are buying one a diabetic alert dog.
Warren uses an analogy to explain just how powerful a dog’s sense of smell can be.
“If we were to take a teaspoon of sugar in a glass of iced tea, we’d smell the sweetness,” he says.
“The dog, for detection work, can sense the same teaspoon of sugar in an Olympic size swimming pool, with chlorine in it,” he says.
Even the human nose can detect extremely high or extremely low blood sugar levels. High levels cause a sweet, fruity, cotton-candy odor, Warren says. With low blood sugar, the diabetic gives off an acetone smell similar to the odor of finger nail polish.
But dogs can sniff out very subtle fluctuations in blood glucose levels, and can be trained to alert the diabetic even if his blood sugar is within normal range but dropping.
And when a trained dog detects an imbalance, it will alert the diabetic by performing one of various actions: licking, nudging or barking, for example. It may also be trained to retrive juice boxes, medicine or testing supplies. For worst case scenarios, when the diabetic is unconscious, the dog can be trained to call 911 on a special device that will leave a pre-recorded message informing emegerncy personnel that a diabetic incident has occurred.
Caden Farmer and Abigail Eagle will be getting their dogs most likely this summer, says Warren, who has type 1 diabetes himself. While his own diabetes is well-controlled and he doesn’t need a dog (“yet,” he says), he understands how much a dog can contribute to the well-being of families affected by diabetes. Diabetes, he says, takes a toll not just on the diabetic but on siblings, parents and caregivers as well.
Warren says he founded Guardian Angel Service Dogs out of passion rather than business acumen. Although his business was already training dogs to be used to detect narcotics and explosives for Homeland Security and police departments, in recent years he’s dedicated much of his time to making life easier for diabetics.
Diabetic alert dogs are a relatively new advancement in support for the diabetic. The first animal trained specifically for the purpose was a California dog named Armstrong, back in 2003. Since then, interest in diabetic alert dogs has grown rapidly.
With the necessary raw material available in the form of his healthy, well-bred retrievers, Warren began training some of his dogs. The first one was placed in 2007, he believes. Now, they place about 300 dogs annually, taking on 25-30 families every month. They are widely considered to be the leaders in the diabetic alert dog program, serving diabetics around the country and overseas. They will soon be participating in a large research project with the University of Virginia focusing on diabetic alert dogs. They also train dogs to help others with “invisible disabilities,” Warren says, including post-traumatic stress disorder and autism.
Unlike many service dogs, Warren’s diabetic alert dogs are placed while they are still puppies — at 3 1/2 to four months of age. With a traditional approach to service dogs, the significant bonding will be between the trainer and the dog, Warren explains. He believes it’s more important for early bonding to occur with the family and the person the dog will actually serve.
Training is customized, Warren says, depending on the age of the diabetic and the circumstances he or she is in. When the puppy is placed, the trainer stays with the family to ensure they know how to handle the dog and use it correctly.
Trainers stay in touch with the families for the working life of the dog, giving support and making visits when necessary.
The Eagles and Farmers have put down the $1,000 deposit that is required before a puppy can be trained.
Now, they need to raise the rest of the $19,000 that a diabetic alert dog — and accompanying support services — costs. If you would like to help by making a donation, you can go to the Guardian Angel Service Dogs website, www.guardianangelservicedogs.org, where you can find information on how to donate to Abigail or Caden. You can also send a check to Guardian Angel Service Dogs, P.O. Box 910, Orange, VA 22960 with Abigail Eagle Family or Caden Farmer Family in the memo line. For more information on how to donate, call 540-543-2307.
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