Diabetes Alert Dogs & That Dog-Gone Low Blood Sugar

Ann S. Williams, Ph.D., R.N., C.D.E., and Yoda

Guest Blog
by Ann S. Williams, Ph.D., R.N., C.D.E.

I have had type 2 diabetes since 1991. I was already a diabetes educator when I diagnosed my own diabetes, and soon told my doctor about it.

Because I had severe side effects with oral medications, I have used insulin from the first year. After doing multiple injections for several years, I got an insulin pump, and have managed my diabetes with a pump ever since then.

As a diabetes educator, I have seen all the major diabetes complications in my patients, so I am highly motivated to prevent complications in myself. Therefore, I have done intensive management from the beginning, trying to keep my blood sugar as close to normal as possible. Of course, it’s nearly impossible to do this perfectly. So at times, I have low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia.

On the day this story begins, I was lying on my bed. A little circular thought was running around my brain, saying, “I don’t feel so good …. I wonder what’s happening to me …. I really don’t feel good …. I wonder what this is …. I don’t feel good …. I wonder …..” Round and round this thought went, repeating itself over and over.

Suddenly, I felt a cold, wet nose and a fuzzy snout against my neck. My dog, Yoda, was pushing against my neck. He is small – only about 11 pounds – but he was pushing with all his might. Finally, it occurred to me that he wanted me to get up. I stood up, still not feeling so good and wondering what was happening to me.

Yoda pushed against the back of my leg. A drop of sweat dripped off the end of my nose. That drop of sweat broke through my circular wondering with a fact: Sweat dripping off the end of my nose is one of my personal signs of hypoglycemia. I realized I was having low blood sugar, so I went and checked it. It was 57 – low enough that I needed to treat it, so I ate four glucose tablets. Fifteen minutes later, my blood sugar was 72, so I knew I had treated it enough. Later, I thought about what had happened, and I realized that Yoda had been signaling me.

I had heard that dogs sometimes alert their owners to hypoglycemia, but never expected that Yoda, at the age of eight years, would suddenly be one of them. I wondered if he would do it again. To make a long story short, my old dog had indeed learned a new trick. He has signaled me every time I have had hypoglycemia in his presence for about the last year.

After my experience, I became very curious about dogs that alert their owners to hypoglycemia, and searched the terms “diabetes alert dog” and “diabetes service dog” on the Internet. I learned that there are four schools in the U.S. that train dogs for this purpose. I also found several newspaper and magazine stories about dogs that, like Yoda, spontaneously started alerting their owners to hypoglycemia.

After reading about all of these dogs, I decided that it would be helpful if I were certain that Yoda would always alert me, and to have him with me more of the time. In order to do that, I needed him to learn better manners for being in public. Although he was trained well enough to be a good pet, a service dog must have a higher standard of good behavior. While the Americans with Disabilities Act does guarantee that service dogs can accompany their humans in public, this right would apply only if the dog has excellent public behavior. A service-dog owner whose dog is out of control or threatening in public can be asked to remove the dog.

I found a service-dog trainer in my area, and Yoda and I met with her. I learned more than I knew there was to know about dog training, and once I knew the training techniques, Yoda learned very quickly. He now has a service-dog vest, and he knows that when he is wearing the vest he must be on his best behavior.

For most of the last year, Yoda has gone with me almost everywhere. He is quite consistent about alerting me to hypoglycemia, often before I recognize that I am feeling the symptoms. (I do always check my blood sugar when he alerts me, just to be sure.) As a person with type 2 diabetes, I do not have hypoglycemia as often or as severely as many people with type 1. But Yoda’s help has improved my life. He lets me know when I have low blood sugar early in the process, while it is dropping, but before it gets really low. By treating early, I can avoid feeling awful for several hours afterwards.

So what would I say to someone who is thinking of getting a diabetes alert dog? First of all, I believe that it’s important to work with a professional service-dog trainer. A diabetes-alert dog needs to be consistent in detecting low blood sugar, for obvious safety reasons. Furthermore, as explained above, anyone who takes a dog out in public has a responsibility for that dog behaving well.

Another consideration is that training for diabetes alert dogs is relatively new. Most service-dog trainers do not know the training techniques. Therefore, I think a person who wants a diabetes-alert dog should probably get one from one of the schools.

Now, here I have to add a disclaimer: I do not have any personal experience with any of the schools. I only know what I have read on their web sites. If you want a diabetes-alert dog, I would suggest that you contact all of them. Some will only serve people from a particular part of the country. The amount of time that you would spend with your dog in training, and the fee for a dog, can be very different at different schools. I imagine that there might be differences in their training procedures. You’ll have to find out as much as you can from the schools, and then make the decision that you think is best for you.

Having said all that, I hope that if you decide to get a diabetes-alert dog, your experience is as good as mine has been. Please let me know! You can contact me through the editor of the National Federation of the Blind’s Voice of the Diabetic.

Note: This article and photo appeared originally on the website of the National Federation of the Blind, and are being used with the permission on both the NFB and the author, Ann. S. Williams.

About the author:

Ann S. Williams, Ph.D., R.N., C.D.E., is a research associate at Case Western Reserve University, principal investigator for Nonvisual Foot Inspection for Persons with Visual Impairment and co-investigator for The FIND Lab, an NIH-funded project to promote full inclusion for people with disabilities in research. She has worked as a diabetes educator for 20 years, has specialized in teaching independent diabetes self-management for blind people and writes and speaks frequently on this topic for other health-care professionals. She was the founder and past chair of the Disabilities Specialty Practice Group of the American Association of Diabetes Educators, and remains an active member of that group.

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  1. It is truly amazing that a trained dog can have such a connection with his/her owner! As an EMT, I have had experience working around dogs who can indicate when their master is going to have a seizure, but I didn’t know the same was possible with diabetes. Can the dogs also indicate hyperglycemia?

  2. Diabetic Alert Dogs by Warren Retrievers (www.warrenretrievers.com) offers Diabetic Alert Dogs that are fully trained in partnership with the diabetic and their family to detect both low and high blood sugars. These dogs, when finished with their training at about 12-18 months, have full public access certification as a service dog. Our Master Trainer, has been training service dogs for more than a decade and has long-term experience in air scent search and rescue which informs her ability to teach this scent based protocol. Additionally, Diabetic Alert Dogs by Warren Retrievers serves clients not only nation-wide, but it is the first program of its kind to serve clients internationally. To learn more visit http://www.warrenretrievers.com.

    • Just so that anyone reading this is fully informed, Warren Retrievers charges $20,000 for a 14 week old puppy that the family trains themselves under guidance from their trainers.

      Most reputable diabetes alert dog organizations charge $2,000 for the exact same service and puppy, as well as $5,000-$10,000 for a fully trained service dog that needs no further training.

      For more information on finding a provider of diabetic alert dogs at more affordable prices, please talk to the professional trainers and handlers at http://www.diabeticalertdog.com. They will steer you in the direction that is the best fit for your family.

  3. I too had the same thing happen to me with my 10yr old Boston terrier. He did many times after the first time. He was the best dog I have ever had. He was already extremely well trained, a no worry what so ever dog about anything. Off leash trained, home alone free roam of the house, listened to every single thing I told him and he was gentle around kids. I thought of having him trained but unfortunately he died last month suddenly and I am still not over him I never will be. He was my life in more ways than one. I have an almost 2yr old Boston terrier and I am looking around to having her trained to be my service dog now. She is a bit more mischievous than her older brother. But I would love to be able to have her be a service dog. Dog are great and can do a lot to help their humans and all they as for is food, water and love !!!

    • Sandy, please go to http://www.diabeticalertdog.com. There are many professional DAD trainers there who are happy to walk you through the process of teaching night time alerts. Just register on the site and do a search for ‘night alerts’, or post your own comment asking for help. The trainers there are the best in the country and are eager to help others.

  4. hoping someone can help me i have a friend that is on disability and she has a sone that is diebetic and they are no money to get him a dog that will help them know when he is getting low or high , the parent themself are a little mental chellanged and i have helped them and they took a class to give him his shots they have three other kids and i told them i will try to see how we can help them get a dog thet will alert them to their child but it is hard when they have no money anyone that could please help me to help this child and family please let me know thank you all

  5. hello,

    My name is A.J I’m 25 years old living in the Boston, Ma area. 2 Years ago I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes not long after my doctor said your type 1 now! it was a shock and until today I’m trying to understand the severity of being a diabetic. Recently I’ve adopted my first pet dog named Gixxer he is a 4 month old Maltese which I absolutely adore. A few weeks ago a friend mentioned that there is training for dogs that can help notify me if my blood sugar dropped! I’m not only suffering from not knowing my blood sugar dropping but now I’m also subconsciously keeping my blood sugar running high in fear of low blood sugars. It has created an anxiety, which I know is seriously bad and dangerous for my health. But I was relived when my friend has mentioned this because I have somewhat experienced it with my Maltese.

    One night I have kept him sleeping with me in the room when all the sudden he started crying and screaming! At first I thought he wanted to go to the bathroom or something but after lifting my head and feeling weak with shortness in my air intake I realized that I needed sugar immediately I quickly realized that if it wasn’t for him I would have been in serious trouble. Sometimes I wish if I know about DAD before I got Maltese but the bond and the love I have for him is irreplaceable so I’m asking for help training my puppy or any advice on where to go and what to do? I’m in Boston

    Thank You

  6. Good morning ma’am, I am a disabled veteran with severe diabetes and severe neuropathy. I also have asthma. I have adopted a 3 month old puppy (Great Pyrenees/Shepherd Mix) which I will pick him up on Saturday July 18. I was inquiring about getting information in possible having him trained as a diabetic neads dog for me. Not sure if this is even possible if someone could help me in training him? Thank you for your time.

    Wayne White
    26 Lake Street
    Leominster, MA 01453
    HP 978-401-2989
    Cell 978-201-3134
    Robin is my wife
    Email waynef89@comcast.net

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