01 November 2010

Dogs alert Diabetes Patients when Blood Sugar is Off

USA Today

There was a time when Ashley Bogdan, 13, worried much more than a girl in middle school should have to.

She worried that her diabetes could cause her to collapse before she could inject the insulin that stabilizes her. She worried about the long-term effect on her parents, who awoke to check on her often each night to ensure she hadn't gone into diabetic coma while sleeping.

Now she has Bria, "and all that's crossed off my list of things to worry about," the spirited soccer player from Brentwood, Calif., says with a laugh. Bria, her constant-companion diabetes alert dog, was specially trained by Dogs4Diabetics, one of a handful of facilities that train such dogs. Bria signals Ashley several minutes before any symptoms — or the blood tests that she diligently conducts regularly — tell the girl she's entering the danger zone.

In the months they've been together, Bria has been alerting her "more than six times a day" when her blood sugar is starting to go off, Ashley says, helping her avoid the peaks and valleys that can, over time, cause organ damage.

Bria is one of 85 animals the non-profit D4D has placed, and several more will go to other people with diabetes this month as D4D holds its fall session this week and next.

Applicants go through a months-long application process to get a dog (valued at about $30,000, though recipients pay only a $150 application and materials fee). The process, which includes weeks of training for the person, too, is necessary because "having a service dog is not right for every person and every profession," says Breanne Harris, assistant program director.

Moreover, getting such a dog is "not a fix-all," she says. People who have diabetes must continue to carefully monitor blood sugar, and because diabetes is "an invisible disability, the person must be comfortable advocating for himself or herself."

D4D has placed dogs with people 12 to 75 years old, including an airline mechanic and college students, and the "life change can be profound," says Harris, who has diabetes.

"Diabetics can do everything right and still these highs and lows just happen sometimes," she says. With the 20-minute warning she gets from alert dog Destiny, she has eliminated the extremes, and "you aren't knocked out for an hour" as happens when there's a large drop in blood sugar levels.

D4D puts its dogs through months of special scent-detection training, and it gets most of them from Guide Dogs for the Blind and Canine Companions for Independence. They're already trained and well-mannered, but inappropriate for blind people — sometimes too tennis-ball-obsessed or dog-play crazy.

Diabetes can be a scary and isolating condition, experts say. And the alert dogs "bring not only the medical benefits," Harris says, "but also psychological benefits."

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