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Hundreds of personal stories attest to a dog’s ability to smell dangerous changes in blood sugar levels and warn of hypoglycemic attacks. And now scientific inquiries on diabetic alert dogs are getting under way.
In 1999, Mark Ruefenacht, a Type 1 diabetic, had his own close call when a dog roused him from a hypoglycemic stupor. Five years later, he founded Dogs 4 Diabetics, an organization that places medical assistance dogs trained in scent detection.
“The dog is an extra tool,” explains Carrie Skym, Dogs 4 Diabetics programs manager. When these assistance dogs, who act as a constant monitor, smell a significant blood sugar change in their owners, they’ll present a brinsel, a type of short stick attached to their collar. “It’s a very clear signal that says, ‘Hey, you need to check your blood sugars,' ” Skym says.
This wingman-like dedication was on full display at a recent Dogs 4 Diabetics graduation ceremony. “We had a 12-year-old boy giving a speech, and right there on stage, the dog alerted him,” Skym says.
The dogs are also trained to warn owners when they're fast asleep. “For a child, the dog might go wake up the parents,” Skym says. “Let’s face it, teenagers don’t wake up easily — even without the blood sugar issue.”
According to the organization, dogs can apparently detect a change faster than a standard blood glucose meter. Through their specialized training, “dogs can catch the scent 10 or 20 minutes before the blood sugar meters,” Skym notes. If the dog raises an alert but a meter reading indicates a normal glucose level, “we tell [owners] to wait 10 minutes and test again.” That extra time allows diabetics to more easily take preventive steps, so that a drop doesn’t become an emergency.
A growing number of epileptics and other people with seizure disorders rely on companion dogs to support them during an episode. These dogs often are trained stay with the patients during seizures to help keep them safe, but some even warn them of an impending attack.
As with diabetic alert dogs, much of the evidence is anecdotal, but seizure alert dogs seem to respond to scent and behavior clues. In the past decade, Seizure, a leading journal on epilepsy and other seizure disorders, has published a few surveys of epilepsy patients about their dogs’ response to seizures and any advance warning behaviors.
With a canine to alert them beforehand to a seizure, patients can make sure that they’re in a safe environment, call for help or otherwise take steps to avoid a life-threatening emergency. To get an owner's attention, the dogs adopt individual alert behaviors, such as licking their owners’ hands or barking.
Darlene Sullivan, founder and executive director of the assistance dog training and placement organization Canine Partners for Life, believes that scent helps a dog anticipate an attack. “We frequently see the dogs ‘air scenting’ (putting their nose in the air and obviously sniffing something) prior to many alerts,” she says.
Sullivan’s team reinforces this scent detection during training. “We have the trainers use a piece of clothing that the person was wearing during a seizure as a tug toy to reward them,” she explains. “This helps associate the scent with positive activities.”
Anecdotal evidence shows that all kinds of dogs can raise medical alerts. Surveys and laboratory tests have studied Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers and Portuguese Water Dogs.
“It seems to have more to do with temperament than breed or nose length,” Dr. McCulloch says. “The dogs who are friendly, well-disposed and eager to learn — those are the dogs who are really the stars.”
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