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Diabetes Service Dogs

Many years ago, Dr. Elliot Joslin recommended that children with diabetes be allowed to have pet dogs, because they would learn to take responsibility for the care of another being as they themselves were cared for by their family and medical team, and because the love that the dog returned to the child was unconditional. He likely did not think that a dog could also be part of the child’s healthcare team, but Eden along with her dog Pearl (see photo below), shows that this is possible.  Pearl is a 16 month old golden retriever, trained to detect hypoglycemia (low blood glucose). Eden and Pearl met several months ago in Kansas and underwent training together to become a team. Pearl has been able to notify Eden or her parents when she has a low blood glucose. Pearl is also being taught how to detect hyperglycemia (high blood glucose). Pearl is a special type of diabetes service or alert dog, identified very early in life for good behavior, ease of training, and love of sniffing. The love of sniffing is a necessity as these dogs need to respond to changes in a person’s body odor that can vary as blood glucose levels rise or fall. Dogs receive early training in obedience, social skills, accommodation to a leash, and scent training.  Training starts before 3 months of age, and may take 2 years to complete. The handler (in this case Eden) must be part of the later training, and must continue reinforcing that training once home. A diabetes alert dog may learn how to “notify” her handler or someone else of the low blood glucose. Some dogs learn to pick up and bring hypoglycemic treatment (glucose tabs or juice) or a telephone so the handler can call for help. Eden's parents researched diabetes alert dogs online and interviewed several services before applying to one that trains all kinds of service dogs to work with persons with diabetes, physical handicaps, or seizure disorders.  Her parents learned that getting a diabetes alert dog was very expensive (up to $15,000. Some of the cost may be covered by donations to the organization or to the client.). The family participated in fundraising at local events and held raffles supported by their local veterinarian, search-and-rescue personnel, a neighborhood coffee house, and other local businesses.  After successfully raising several thousand dollars, Eden and her parents were able to travel to Kansas, receive training, and return home with Pearl. Pearl now goes everywhere with Eden, even to school. When on the leash, Pearl is “on the job”, but she has time to play every day, too.  If you are interested in learning more about diabetes service dogs, Eden's parents recommend this site: diabeticalertdog.com.     
-Alyne Ricker, MD

Page last updated: October 24, 2014