Friday, September 21, 2012

The DAD Journey - Bringing a Diabetes Alert Dog into your home

Sarah and Scout training at the local college library

Advancements in diabetes management are on a fast track. New pumps, new CGM’s, an artificial pancreas on the horizon, and diabetes alert dogs.


Yes! For many families, Fido has become an important part of diabetes management.

Dogs have long been known to have superior, amazing, spectacular sniffers. They walk through airports and sniff for drugs and explosives. They search for missing people by smelling a piece of clothing. Dogs play an important role in disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, bombings, and volcano explosions. These amazing animals can find humans in the most difficult conditions imaginable.

So why not train a dog to alert to a change in body chemistry? It makes so much scents! (That pun was impossible to resist)

While I am certain that dogs of diabetic owners have been naturally alerting (even my Pug has shown an ability to sense when my daughter’s sugar is off) for decades, it wasn’t until relatively recently that organizations and people began to intentionally train dogs for this amazing mission.

Dogs4Diabetics (D4D), located in sunny California, may hold the key to the origin of diabetes alert dogs. See their website for the full story. D4D began taking applications for diabetes alert dogs in 2004 and now, 8 years later, has 80 teams in service. They have a system very closely related to Guide Dogs for the Blind, taking an approved applicant, providing over 100 hours of classroom and field training, and provide ongoing support and assistance to teams. They only work with mature dogs, providing qualified diabetics with a Service Dog ready to go to work, to school, to the mall, or to Disneyland.

They weren’t alone in this noble mission for long...

Over the last several years, particularly as parents of children with diabetes discovered the successes of diabetes alert dogs, the need for these dogs, and trainers, has blossomed into a growing industry with far more applicants than available dogs. If you do your research, you can find everything from a scent imprinted puppy for self-training to fully trained alert dogs ready to jump on the school bus and attend high school. Costs vary widely as well, from under $2,000 for a scent imprinted puppy to many thousands of dollars for a fully trained alert dog. Some organizations with large grants and donation bases are able to provide fully trained dogs for as little as a minimal application fee.

Why do we need Diabetes Alert Dogs?

Diabetes is scary, and stories of worst case scenarios haunt parents, especially those of newly diagnosed children. Parents are scared and sleep deprived. We want anything and everything that will make our children’s lives safer. We want the latest pump and CGM, we want the best insulin and the newest and most accurate meter. We want a dog that will jump up and down, ring a bell, spin in circles, sneeze in our ear, and perform cartwheels in the middle of the night to make 1000% sure that we are awakened to any potentially dangerous low blood sugar. 

And we are willing to do whatever it takes to get that dog home with us, to keep our babies safe.
The difference between an insulin pump and a diabetes alert dog is that the insulin pump is covered under the FDA, provided by prescription and under the supervision of a physician, and guaranteed to work or be replaced within 24 hours.

Our desperation makes us vulnerable.

There are wonderful DAD companies out there, managed by people who care about our children and are training dogs because they truly love their work.

There are also unscrupulous villain’s who would part you with your money.

Heaven Scent Paws is a perfect example of such an organization. Incorporated as a non-profit in 2004, this company advertised “highly trained diabetic alert dogs”, and only required a $6,000 non-refundable donation to the non-profit before a family was accepted into the program. Families were not provided an opportunity to review the contract until after they’d raised the required amount – at which point families were compelled to continue or risk losing all they had invested.

The desperation of parents has long been a magnet for the unscrupulous, but there are ways to protect yourself and ensure your diabetes alert dog adventure is a positive one.

  • Read the contract – It’s common sense. You should never give any entity or business your money until you read and understand what you are going to receive in return. Better yet, hire an attorney to review the contract. If you are going to invest thousands of dollars, doesn’t an extra couple of hundred for a thorough contract review make sense?
  • Ask questions, preferably in email, and keep notes and documentation of the answers.
  • Understand under what (if any) circumstances your dog can be removed from your home by the organization.
  • Research multiple organizations and talk to parents who have DAD’s from multiple organizations. Ask about positive and negative experiences. Find out about their expectations and determine if they match yours.
  • Consider what you want in a DAD. Do you want to self-train, starting with a puppy? Do you want an older dog? Do you want the public access training to be done for you or are you prepared to do this training yourself?
  • Make sure you know the process if something doesn’t go right. What happens if your dog isn’t alerting? What happens if your dog is found to have a health problem? What type of guarantee do you have against illness or injury?
    • Not long ago a Service Dog was placed with a candidate after all the required training was complete. The dog was under 2 years old and had no prior health problems. The dog died within three days of placement and was later found to have an aggressive cancer than had been undetected. This is an extreme example, but these things happen. What protections does the organization offer you in such a circumstance?
  • Look up the Service Dog laws in your state. Make sure you know whether you are receiving a Service Dog, or a Service Dog in Training, and how this distinction might affect your ability to take your dog on outings.

What can you expect from a Diabetes Alert Dog?

First, a dog, even a well trained service dog, is still a dog. Any dog comes with a lot of responsibilities, including:
  • They poop, sometimes big stinky ones or runny yucky ones and someone has to pick these up daily.
  • They need regular grooming including baths (much more often than a pet dog), ear cleaning, coat brushing, teeth brushing, and nail clipping.
  • They need food - and if you want your service dog to live a long, healthy, active life, a better than average (and more expensive than average) food is in order.
  • They need regular check-ups at the Vet.
  • They fart, burp, and vomit when they’re sick.
  • They need constant training! Even a fully trained service dog will need to be continually trained and exercised. Skills will diminish if they aren’t continually reinforced through training.
  • They need love and affection. Dogs aren’t robots, so if you aren’t a dog person, a service dog probably isn’t the solution in your home.

  • And if you decide to self-train a puppy, they have smelly accidents on your white carpet and antique furniture, they chew your shoes and your windowsills, they whine when they have to pee at 2am, anything not nailed to the floor (or, really, the ceiling) is a chew toy, they misbehave - even when they’ve been training perfectly for months, they poop in the middle of the grocery store or in line at the bank, and they take a LOT of consistent effort to train into the well behaved service dog you will be proud to take with you anywhere you go.

All that aside, a diabetes alert dog can be a wonderful addition to your family. A well trained dog can alert you to impending high and low blood sugars, can wake you during the night when there’s a problem, and can be a constant furry friend who will love your child unconditionally.

A little extra time spent on research and consideration now can help to ensure your future with your DAD is all you hoped it would be, and more.