When people with diabetes experience a drop in blood sugar, symptoms can occur suddenly. They may feel dizzy, shaky, confused, irritable, anxious, or lethargic. If left untreated, low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) can cause unconsciousness or seizures. While monitoring devices can alert diabetics when their blood sugar drops, some families are turning to service dogs for help.
Paws and Affection, a nonprofit organization in the greater Philadelphia area that trains service dogs for children with disabilities, got its first two diabetic alert dogs in 2017. “Type 1 diabetes is often diagnosed between the ages of 3 and 7,” says Executive Director Laura O’Kane. “It was a good fit for who we want to help and broadened our base of applicants.”
Benefits of Diabetic Alert Dogs
Diabetic alert dogs are trained to detect when someone’s blood sugar is lowering, says Susie Daily, training and program director at Paws and Affection. The dogs react to a chemical change in the person’s body, sniffing out a distinct odor that is undetectable by humans.
“They can be more accurate than your equipment. Often, they can tell you sooner—as much as 20 minutes sooner,” says Daily, a certified professional dog trainer. “It’s really helpful for people who have hypoglycemic unawareness, which means you’re not picking up on the cues your body might be giving that your blood sugar is dropping, so the dog is noticing for you.” Once alerted by the dog, the child can test her blood sugar and take the appropriate steps to bring her blood sugar level back up.
These savvy dogs have another leg up on machines: “You can’t turn the dog off,” O’Kane says. “If you ignore the dog, they will continue to alert you.” If the child doesn’t act, the dog is trained to go find help.
Diabetic alert dogs also provide a sense of security for families, especially when it’s time to go to sleep. “If your blood sugar drops when you’re asleep and you don’t hear the monitor go off, it can be a matter of life or death,” O’Kane says. “It is reassuring that the dog is there and will tell you if your blood sugar drops in the night.”
Paws and Affection trains its dogs for about two years before placing them with a recipient. “We get the dogs at 8 weeks old, and we train them until they’re 2 years old,” O’Kane says. To train its two Labrador Retrievers, Totie and Violet, the team uses scent samples from volunteers with diabetes. The scent is then paired with food, so the dog associates the odor with a reward. “We gradually start to move toward having them actually search for that scent,” Daily explains. “The next step is then hiding it on our bodies, and it’s tucked in my shoe or tucked in my pocket. When they find it…jackpot.”
O’Kane was inspired to found Paws and Affection after reading Through a Dog’s Eyes by Jennifer Arnold. Arnold has trained service dogs for people with physical disabilities or other special needs for more than 25 years through her nonprofit organization Canine Assistants in Georgia. In September 2011, O’Kane traveled to Georgia to complete a teaching method course under the direction of Arnold.
To gain classroom experience, O’Kane became an assistant at a local pet dog training company. That’s where she met Daily, the lead trainer at the time. “We immediately clicked as friends but also with our philosophies on how to train dogs and how to treat dogs. And understanding how powerful they are and how they can help people,” recalls O’Kane, who is a certified professional dog trainer. Not long after O’Kane got her dream business off the ground, she brought on Daily as head trainer and program director.
O’Kane spends most of her time raising funds and managing the organization’s day-to-day operations while Daily teaches the dogs new skills and takes them on socialization adventures. The dogs spend their days learning at the facility and live with foster families on nights and weekends until they are ready to be placed. “It does feel good for us to see all the work we’ve put into the dog and the love we’ve put into the dog to then go on to graduate and do the job we’ve been training them for,” O’Kane says.
In addition to Totie and Violet, Paws and Affection currently has two Golden Retrievers who will be trained to work with children with physical disabilities or psychiatric impairments. The organization trains its service dogs to do a variety of tasks, such as opening a door for a child in a wheelchair, offering balance support for a child with a mobility disability, or picking up dropped items for a child who gets dizzy when bending over.
“Our goals are to help kids,” Daily says. “In the end, what we’re looking for is independence on the part of the child that they might not have had prior to having this dog. It’s magical seeing them work together.”