People with certain health conditions can be subject to low blood sugar episodes, that if not caught and addressed, can result in impaired cognition, making it difficult or impossible for the person affected to treat themselves. This can be very dangerous if the person is alone or asleep and is unaware they are having a low blood sugar episode.
While many diabetics have good control over their condition, with a routine of blood sugar monitoring, insulin injections, and careful diet, some people have a great deal of difficulty controlling their diabetes and are frequently subject to low blood sugar episodes that can be life-threatening. Service dogs that are trained to detect low blood sugar episodes almost as soon as they begin and alert their owners to take action to counteract the condition, can be lifesavers. These dogs allow diabetics the ability to be independent, working and living on their own, and provide safety for diabetics when asleep by detecting low blood sugar episodes that could go unnoticed and alerting the diabetic themself and/or another family member.
Diabetic service dogs detect low blood sugar by recognizing the scent of low blood sugar on a human's breath or emitted through their pores. Because dogs have such an incredibly sensitive sense of smell, they are able to detect this scent, which is not perceivable to us. Diabetic dogs are then taught several behaviors to help the person with low blood sugar. They alert the person with a nudge, paw or other predetermine signal, they can go get help by alerting another person if the diabetic does not respond, and they can be trained to assist a low blood sugar episode by going to fetch testing materials, a phone, and/or glucose tablets. When out in public or in an environment such as school or work, the dog wears a harness identifying him as a service dog and carries diabetic supplies for their owner. Because of the complexity of the behaviors and situations required of a low blood sugar detection dog, the training is extensive and takes a major investment of time; many hours over several months.
Any dog breed can be taught, what is important is the temperament of the dog. Detection dogs require the ability to work in public, around other people and distractions, they need to be non-aggressive, friendly, confident and motivated to work for a reward. Dogs trained to detect low blood sugar are started by being taught to recognize the scent of low blood sugar from puppyhood; serious training begins at 1-3 years of age. Low blood sugar dogs are extremely successful at detecting episodes and can detect the onset of an epsiode 15-30 minutes before it would be detected by symptoms or even blood glucose meters.
In order to train a low blood sugar detection dog, you will need to use positive reinforcement, never negative. Dogs are rewarded for providing the correct behavior and ignored when they do not respond appropriately. Lots of treats, attention, toys, and play can be used for rewards.
You will need to provide samples of low blood sugar scent in the absence of a person actually having a low blood sugar episode in order to provide the volume of training experience required to teach the dog to detect. Samples can be obtained by taking saliva samples with a cotton ball whenever a diabetic is having a low blood sugar episode, or swabs from sweat glands, such as in the underarms or feet. These samples are then put in a zipper baggie and frozen for future use. These scent samples can be used in porous containers to teach the dog to respond to the scent. Initially, teaching a puppy to respond to low blood sugar scent may involve using a bowl and a colander to teach the puppy to put their nose up to the scent for a treat.
Service dogs used for detecting low blood sugar need to be certified and regular yearly recertification checks are performed to ensure the dog and handler are working effectively together. Investigate the certification requirements and assistance in your area prior to training.
our 11year old son has type1. hazel has barked when he is low and lays by him when he is high. we just noticed this a couple of days ago but looking back she has been doing this awhile. she is the family dog but seems to take my son as her favorite. how do we fine tune this natural gift hazel has to communicate it to mom and dad? when he is low is the top priority. thank you
Hello Craig, If you regularly test your son's blood sugar, then when it tests high and when it tests low, have your son suck on something absorbent that is made out of cotton and not scented, until the material is saturated. A cotton ball, gauze pad, paper towel, or napkin will usually work. When you remove the material from his mouth, use something to remove it that will not add your own scent to it, such as the inside of a zip-lock bag or tweezers. Place one sample into an airtight ziplock bag, and then place that bag into another bag or into an airtight plastic container, preferably the later, and freeze it. Label whether the sample was of low sugar or high sugar saliva. Freeze all of the samples this way. When you are ready to train, you will take the sample out of the freezer and let is thaw a bit, and then store it in the fridge when not training with it, and use it for three days. Throw it away after three days. Once you have collected enough samples for you for training with, start by training your dog with the low sugar samples, since that is the most important alert for you. Open the bag and let your dog sniff the sample, teach your dog a specific alert signal, or choose to encourage an alert that your puppy chooses on his own, like pawing, barking, whining, or something else obvious. First reward your puppy whenever he smells the bag, then after you have taught him the alert signal, reward him whenever he alerts by doing that signal when he smells the sample. When he has reached this point, then introduce a non blood sugar sample, and only reward him if he alerts to the right sample, so that he will learn to pay attention to the smell. Do not reward wrong alerts at any point during the training. Practice this until he will only alert to the right sample, no matter how many samples you give him. When he can do that, then hide the sample somewhere like your son's pocket, and teach him to find it on your son and alert you that it is there. After you have done the low blood sugar alert training and your dog is extremely good at that one, then you might be able to train your dog to alert for the high blood sugar too, by teaching him a different type of alert to do when he smells that one. I say might because some dogs will struggle with more than one alert, but many can handle multiple alerts. You will have to see whether or not your dog seems confused when you add the second scent, and choose based on that whether to train for both. Make sure that you train the alerts to be pretty different to prevent confusion. For example, if your dog barks to alert for low blood sugar, then have him do something like paw at you for the high blood sugar. Keep the alerts different enough that your dog is not likely to mix them up. When you have taught both alerts, then practice with the low sugar sample, the high sugar sample, and a non scented sample, and ignore any wrong alerts or wrong type of alert. Only reward your puppy for the right type of alert for the right type of sample. Sort of like matching up cards in the Memory card game, the pair needs to go together, only then does your dog win. It does sound like Hazel has a sensitive enough sense of smell and is sensitive enough to your son's body language to be able to learn how to alert, so that is wonderful. I would definitely begin training this while Hazel is still a puppy, but expect it to take him longer to learn this while he is still young. Be patient. Even though it might take him longer to learn it though, training it while he is a puppy will help him to retain it for life and form an extremely strong habit of doing it, as well as teach him to love doing it, so that he will be more likely to do it without your prompting in real life when he smells the low or high sugar levels on his own. Basically the extra work of training him while young will be very worth it. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden
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