Welcome to our last post in the Canine Heroes Blog Tour! (Except for a wrap-up post tomorrow.) I am so excited to share this guest post from Pearl Willis. Thank you, Pearl, for sharing your story and for your dedication to service dog work!
A mother tosses in her bed, exhausted yet alert. In the other room, her four-year-old is sleeping heavily after a long day of play. His blood sugar is steadily dropping but he doesn’t feel it, he won’t wake up. Unable to fall asleep, his mother anxiously tiptoes in to test his blood. This is her life; constantly watching her son for low blood sugar symptoms, dosing with insulin, dealing with tricky sick-days. This is the life of a type 1 diabetic and those who love him.
What is type 1 diabetes?
I’ve had type 1 diabetes for nearly 5 years of my life. And it’s been hard. (As I write this, it’s a unhealthily-late hour and I’m munching on sugar snacks to raise my low blood sugar!) 5 million Americans are living with type 1 diabetes. If you don’t already know, let me explain T1D a bit…
Type 1 diabetes is a chronic auto-immune disease (not caused by lifestyle) that occurs when the body attacks its own pancreas. There is no cure. If you want to read more about the pancreas and type 1 diabetes, check out this interesting article.
For people with T1D, proper management means keeping blood sugar within a healthy range, doing the job of the pancreas. An uncontrolled very low blood sugar will result in lost consciousness then finally death. High sugars famously take a toll on eyesight, heart health, and wound healing. Diabetics must carefully manage their blood sugar every day, all day, to avoid serious complications. Basically, it’s super important!
While scientists have developed technologies to help manage diabetes, carefully trained diabetic alert dogs (DADs) are another important (and adorable) tool in controlling changes in a person’s blood sugar.
How can a DAD help?
Have you seen those videos of explosives detection dogs or the new studies that show dogs are able to detect cancer cells? Dogs also have the incredible ability to smell distinct scents given off by the human body from chemical shifts when blood sugar goes high or low– a scent completely undetected by the human nose!
A DAD service dog is able to detect hazardous out-of-range blood sugars and alert their handlers with a trained behavior such as pawing. Additionally, the dog can be trained to bring medications, use a special device to dial 911, and get help from a family member when necessary.
A DAD is never 100% accurate. They are dogs, not robots, so they are NOT a replacement for regular blood sugar checks.
VIDEO: A DAD alerting to low blood sugar. Credit: Used with permission from Libby Rockaway, Libby’s Loving Leashes
At the age I was diagnosed, I was old enough to be able to care for my condition on my own, but so many families with T1D toddlers or elderly face difficult challenges. One common issue people who have had T1D for many years face is hypoglycemic unawareness in which you no longer feel the warning symptoms such as sweating and shaking that usually accompany a dropping blood sugar. Without these signs, you risk losing consciousness, but a DAD may prompt you to treat your low early while you’re still alert enough.
Diabetics who live alone will also benefit from having a DAD to help.
What does the training of a DAD look like?
Meet Adara, a golden retriever service dog I raised and trained for a year. I taught her puppy obedience and public access skills, as well as began her diabetic alert skills. I’m so happy for the experience of training her– it opened up the service dog world to me and I learned so much! Now Adara is paired with a young boy and they are a perfect team. ❤
The training that goes into a DAD is intensive and it can take up to 2 years, but I’ll try to sum it up. Like other types of service dogs, a DAD must navigate distracting public situations with strong focus on their person so that they can always be on call to help. The majority of what we teach a service dog in training consists of relationship building and sturdy obedience that will set the dog up to be a helpful, reliable companion in the future.
The DAD specific skills are introduced at a very early age. Some special DAD puppies bred from service dog parents are introduced to the low blood sugar scent while nursing to start a positive association with the scent. But plenty of adult dogs who have not had this make fantastic DADs as well.
Training is done using a saliva sample before moving to live alerting. First, we teach the dog that the scents of high and low blood sugar are extremely rewarding– resulting in treats and “puppy parties”. When the dog can identify out-of-range blood sugars, she is taught to perform an alert behavior in response to the scent. Careful training is done for night alerts as well, when the dog must persistently wake their handler.
For in-depth information please visit this website, MD Dogs. Libby Rockaway has created a completely free, fantastic training workbook and videos that take you through all the steps. I am using this with our family dog, Jack, whom I’m training for at-home diabetic alerts for myself!
Thanks for reading, people! If you have any questions, leave a comment and I’d be happy to answer!! Tell others about diabetic alert dog heroes. Let’s raise awareness– that’s what this blog tour is all about!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hiya I’m Pearl! When I’m not training or playing frisbee with Jack Lewis the Aussie; I’m drawing, doing Algebra, enjoying puns, or reading a really good book. I live in Arizona with an amazing God, my family, and two chronic autoimmune illnesses (plus Jack– look at that tongue! xD).
That’s it, folks. I’ll just echo what Pearl said – if you have ANY questions, please leave them in the comments, and one of us will respond. But don’t miss tomorrow’s post, because I’m going to be talking a bit about allergen detection dogs.
DAY ONE – July 15 – Introduction / Q&A with Alicia Picon
DAY TWO – July 16 – Q&A with Abby Rose / Q&A with Kassie Angle
DAY THREE – July 17 – Guest Post from Pearl Willis / Spotlight Post on soldiergirlstories.com
July 18 – That’s A Wrap on aneedtobreathe.com (The Why Behind the Blog Tour and a BIG Thank You!)