Updated: Jul 28, 2020
Diabetic Alert Dogs are trained to anticipate health crises for their person. These dogs are selected based on several qualities, such as their interest in the human-animal connection, a high work drive, or treat or toy motivated, strongly focused, etc. These highly trained dogs can detect both highs and lows in blood sugar of their companion-person. In some cases, the dogs are more accurate than the currently used home testing devices, and can detect dangerous highs or lows fifteen minutes sooner than trusted medical devices. In some cases, this could be a life-saving difference.
Ralph Hendrix, Executive Director of the non-profit Dogs4Diabetics, is quoted in Medical News Today with his explanation of how dogs are able to detect high and low blood sugar levels in diabetics.
"We believe all diseases have scent associated with the diseases, due to the changes occurring within the body, with different organs expressing different chemical compounds. These scents are evident in breath and sweat," Hendrix explained. The dogs are trained to react and alert to relevant scent changes, not behavioral changes.
"The dog is trained to identify the hypoglycemic scent and then is taught to discriminate the hypoglycemic scent from other attractive, but distracting, scents through a series of games and training exercises. The dogs receive positive rewards for identifying the correct scent and for their work."
The challenge in training the diabetic alert dog, and the reason this training takes months or years, is that the dog has to learn both high and low levels, so the companion person knows how to intervene in a medical crisis, as well as how to discriminate between current odors and past residue odors. Hendrix continues:
"All diabetics will have residual scent around from previous hypoglycemic episodes. This 'dead' scent lingers in their home, their clothes, their bed. The dogs have to learn to differentiate the 'dead,' lingering scent from the 'live' scent, and transition their alert to only the live scent for which they are rewarded."
In a personal interview with diabetic dog trainer Marie Selarque, I learned that in one case, a diabetic patient’s medical device was malfunctioning and giving her a false reading that her sugar was low. The dog was signaling that it was the reverse. She trusted her dog. The dog was correct, and the FDA-approved medical device was giving the opposite, wrong information. This could have been a life-threatening situation, had she not listened to her dog.
This same dog, while traveling with her companion on an airplane, suddenly wanted to go to the back of the plane. There the dog alerted, or signaled, that a stranger was diabetic. In this case, the passenger did not know this, but later, medical testing proved the dog’s early diagnosis was correct.
Genie Joseph, PhD
Director: The Human-Animal Connection