Diabetes Goes To The Dogs

Insulin-dependent diabetics often devote a great deal of time and anxiety worrying about their risks of experiencing a potentially fatal episode of hypoglycemia, especially at night while they sleep.

That’s why the recent graduation of the first diabetes detection dog from the University of Pennsylvania’s Working Dog Center is such great news for those facing the biggest risks.

Diabetes detection dogs are trained to recognize changes in the aroma of human breath that signal an episode of low blood sugar, so they can alert their owners of problems before it is too late.

The graduate from the Working Dog Center, a purebred golden retriever named Betagne, is already at work as the detection dog for Wayne Mowry of Bloomingdale, N.J., a type 1 diabetic who is grateful for the peace of mind his new companion provides.

“It’s a comfort having Bretagne with me, knowing that she is trained to help me when my blood sugar goes below the normal range,” Mowry told the University of Pennsylvania student newspaper Penn Current. “She alerts me before the drop in blood sugar has a drastic impact on my health.”

Bretagne is named after one of only two dogs deployed to the World Trade Center site on 9/11 to still survive, and was the first dog to arrive at the Working Dog Center for training.

The WDC only trains purebred, AKC-registered puppies for the momentous job of saving lives, according to the center’s founder and director, Dr. Cindy Otto.

 “Dogs are capable of doing really intelligent work to help people; Bretagne is just one example of what dogs can do for humans,” Otto said. “But to do it right, we have to work with purebred dogs to make sure we are reliably and consistently graduating dogs that will deliver on their training. We cannot create a training program with dogs who vary in their abilities, temperament, or natural breed-specific capabilities. We are dealing with people’s lives.”

Bretagne from the beginning revealed herself to be the perfect dog for such a critical, important position.

“She was very social, and really preferred to be around people,” Otto said, adding that her exceptional nose made her an ideal candidate to serve as diabetes alert dog. Which not only gave her a job, but also allowed her to be in the kind of social environment that made her happiest.

While episodes of low blood sugar are Bretagne’s main focus, dogs that take part in the WDC training program are also trained to recognize high blood sugar, which has the potential to be just as dangerous.

The training focuses on teaching the dogs how to recognize when a person’s blood sugar is below a normal range using saliva samples. They are then trained to recognize higher than normal levels using a scent wheel and a reward system.

Like other service dogs, they are also trained to react calmly in a wide range of situations including public transit and city traffic and to ignore distractions including food.

The diabetes detection dogs are ideal companions for children who may sleep through blood sugar highs and lows and for adults who are no longer able to recognize the early symptoms of an episode of low blood sugar, which was true in Mowry’s case.

For more information on the Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania and its programs, visit http://pennvetwdc.org.

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