BATON ROUGE, La. (BRPROUD) – “All I remember was waking up and feeling sticky all over and extremely weak. My mom was sitting on the edge of my bed, and I asked her why my face, hair, and sheets were sticky. She explained that she had come to check on me since I wasn’t awake and getting ready for school as I normally would be,” Nicole Harrington says in an article on Healthline’s website.

Harrington, who lives with type 1 diabetes, was around 15 years old when the incident above happened. 

She’d experienced an episode of low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia while she was asleep. 

If her mother hadn’t found her in time, Harrington could have experienced a diabetic seizure, coma, or passed away in her sleep. 

Her experience is not uncommon. 

According to Diabetes.org, “Low blood glucose is common for people with type 1 diabetes and can occur in people with type 2 diabetes taking insulin or certain medications. The average person with type 1 diabetes may experience up to two episodes of mild low blood glucose each week, and that’s only counting episodes with symptoms.” 

Most people don’t understand the true extent of life with diabetes and the constant attention you need to give it to survive. People with diabetes can do everything “right” and still experience hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia.

Nicole Harrington, teacher/healthcare advocate with type 1 diabetes

It’s imperative that people with type 1 diabetes monitor their sugar carefully and this is no easy task.

Harrington points out that even a change in weather can have a significant impact on her blood sugar, saying, “Type 1 diabetes can be incredibly unpredictable. I once had to reduce my long-acting insulin by five units after remaining low for an entire day, simply because I was in Bangkok and the humidity was off the charts.”

As this sort of unpredictability is often the case for people with type 1 diabetes, some are turning to diabetic service dogs for assistance. 

What exactly do Diabetic Service Dogs do?

According to WebMD, diabetic service dogs, or diabetic alert dogs (DADs), are trained to let patients know when their blood sugar has spiked too high or dropped too low. 

Once alerted, the patient can act quickly to correct their blood sugar. 

This can mean either taking insulin to lower high blood sugar, or consuming something with glucose to give low blood sugar the boost it needs. 

It’s important to act quickly when these incidents occur, and DADs are trained to do exactly this. 

Dizziness, confusion, and drowsiness are symptoms of both severe hyperglycemia and severe hypoglycemia. A diabetic alert dog is trained to alert you of a blood sugar drop or spike while you’re still awake enough to treat your blood sugar levels or get help.

WebMD

The fact that a dog’s senses are keen enough to detect this sort of change in a human’s bodily functioning may seem inconceivable.

But Mark Ruefenacht, founder of Dogs4Diabetics (D4D), explained the following to Diatribe.org, “The big myth is that dogs are smelling blood sugar. But the dogs are actually sensing the compounds that come out of the liver when the blood sugar is either dropping rapidly or is low.”

The article goes on to say, “Though humans can’t detect these smells, dogs likely can. Scientists are not sure what exactly the dogs identify, but research suggests that it’s ketones (for high blood sugar) and may be a natural chemical called isoprene (for low blood sugar).” 

Some DADs are trained to go the extra mile

Some service dogs, known as Medical Response Dogs, are trained to not only notify their human of severe low blood sugar, but to then retrieve supplies such as foods, drinks, and emergency kits for their human. 

DADs are also typically trained to provide their humans with emotional support.

Diatribe.org explains why, stating, “This means that in addition to helping people manage their blood sugar, these dogs can also help improve their owner’s mental and emotional wellbeing. This is especially important for people with diabetes because of the stress that often comes with long-term management of a chronic condition… People with diabetes are also two to three times more likely to experience symptoms of depression than the general population, according to the CDC.”

Harrington, mentioned at the outset of this article, touched on this aspect of the illness, saying, “What I think people with type 1 diabetes often forget, and an outsider doesn’t see, is that the emotional toll of the disease so easily impacts physical well-being.”

She continued, “We certainly feel the burden, but far too often won’t prioritize our emotional well-being. It tends to come second to the numerous physical demands of a chronic disease. I believe part of this has to do with the shame placed on people with diabetes and the general misunderstanding of the disease.”

Challenges that may come with having a diabetic service dog

People with type 1 diabetes who are interested in learning more about what it takes to acquire the services of DADs can look for accredited service dog organizations by state and country on Assistance Dog International.  

However, it may be helpful to keep in mind the expenses and challenges that come with partnering with such a highly trained canine companion. 

According to WebMD, DADs typically cost between $8,000 and $20,000, though there are some organizations that might provide DADs free of charge. 

In addition to this, there are the monthly and annual expenses associated with making a dog a member of the family, which include veterinarian bills and food purchases. 

WebMd adds that, “The dog may also need to be regularly tested by a trainer to make sure they are still able to detect changes in your blood sugar levels. This could lead to some dogs needing additional training from time to time.” 

Balancing help from DADs with personal diabetes management

While DADs have the potential to save their human’s life, a person with type 1 diabetes is still responsible for the management of their own healthcare.

For example, a woman named Taylor Johnson says that she depends on both her service dog, Claire, and on the medical devices that help her monitor her blood sugar.

Johnson told Diatribe.org, “Having a service dog is the best decision I’ve ever made regarding my diabetes management. I love gadgets and tech but they are not foolproof, and Claire is the additional piece of mind I need to sleep at night.”