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Diabetic Alert Dogs
Trained pups can outdo medical technology

When Dustin Hillman developed severe hypoglycemic unawareness, a complication of diabetes, it would often land him in the emergency room from low blood sugar.  At its worst, the condition left him unconscious more than six times in a two week period.  It also threatened Dustin's independence, almost forcing him to drop out of graduate school and move in with his parents.

That all changed when a hypoglycemic alert dog named Tippy came into his life.  In the first three months with the Labrador/Golden Retriever mix, Dustin lost consciousness only once and didn't require emergency services.  Dustin was also able to regain his life and complete a Masters degree in Chemistry from Purdue University.

Diabetic alert dogs are becoming increasingly popular, especially as diagnosis rates rise.  Ed Peebles, president of the National Institute for Diabetic Alert Dogs, gets up to 20 applications a day looking for a trained pup.

Amazingly dogs can help diabetes sufferers in ways that modern technology cannot.  While a glucose monitor can detect high sugar levels, the chemicals produced during low blood sugar incidents have not been identified, so machines can only record drops after they happen.

Dogs can learn to alert humans before the blood sugar drop occurs.  Researchers don't know how the pups do it, but are working to identify the chemical compound they smell.  Knowing this information would allow scientists to better train future dogs and to possibly make a mechanical detection device.  But for now the unique canine ability remains a mystery.

Andrea Calamoneri, whose 15-year-old son Dylan has Type 1 diabetes, was initially skeptical, but was convinced after seeing her son's dog at work.  Celeste can alert them to a drop in blood sugar well before it actually happens.  The smell of dropping sugar levels will even wake Celeste out of a nap.  "It gives you chills when you see it happen," says Andrea.

The power of the canine nose and their willingness to work with us in these extraordinary ways is incredible.

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JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.

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