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.