Diabetes-Alert Dogs: The Newest Tool to Monitor Glucose Levels

January 19, 2017
American Veterinarian Editorial Staff

Of all the tools available to help patients with diabetes monitor their glucose level, diabetes-alert dogs may have the most appeal.

It seems that the newest tool in the diabetic patient’s arsenal has four legs and a tail. Diabetes-alert dogs, which are full-access service animals protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, are trained to alert their charges to potentially dangerous glucose levels.

These dogs can help patients by providing advance notice of trending low and high blood-sugar levels in their owners before those levels become dangerous. The dogs are trained through a lengthy and repetitive process for about 8 months; training is based on a positive-reward method. The dogs undergo three types of training:

  • basic obedience training, in which they learn voice commands and hand signals;
  • public access training, which desensitizes them to the distractions of worldly environments; and
  • training to detect through smell the chemical changes produced by the human body associated with high and low blood-sugar levels. The dogs are rewarded with treats for accurate alerts.

The idea of a furry glucose monitor evidently has much appeal. Eight-year-old Emma Brussell from Long Island, New York, who has type 1 diabetes, wanted one of these dogs and began to sell her art online to finance the project. According to a Newsday report, Brussell ended up raising $15,000, after which the girl and her mother submitted an application to Diabetes Alert Dogs of America. She can be matched with a pet after spending 8 to 10 weeks on a waiting list.

According to Christy Weaver, client services director at Diabetes Alert Dogs of America, the cost to train these dogs can range from $5,000 to $15,000. And while any dog breed can be trained to alert an owner to changes in blood glucose levels, the Nevada-based organization prefers to use American Kennel Club—designated sporting breeds, particularly Labrador and golden retrievers, labradoodles, golden doodles, and standard poodles. They are typically matched with a patient when the dog reaches maturity, usually between 1 and 2 years of age.

The dogs alert the patients by “pawing” at the person’s leg when his or her blood sugar spikes or drops outside the target range (80—150 mg/dL). They continue that action until blood sugar reaches a safe level, the company explained. If the patient is sleeping, the dog can jump on the bed to wake the person up.

The dog knows when a patient’s blood sugar is outside the target range based on saliva samples collected from the matched patient during the training process.

Of course, living with these animals is different than having a pet. For example, as a working dog, Diabetes Alert Dogs of America explained, they concentrate their full attention on the patient during their first 2 months together. After that “attachment” period, patients may go out on their own, such as to a school dance, so the dog gets a break. But, as working dogs, these animals cannot be turned away from public places. When traveling on airplanes they get to sit at the patient’s feet instead of in the kennel or storage area of the plane.

In recent years, diabetes alert dogs have become increasingly popular among patients with diabetes. The dogs are about 87% accurate in completing their jobs every day, Weaver said. Diabetes Alert Dogs of America also believes that these dogs can provide emotional security, a sense of balance, and the ability for patients to lead more confident and independent lifestyles.