November is American Diabetes Month—a time to raise awareness about the chronic disease, which is one of the leading causes of disability and death in the United States, affecting one in 12 Americans.
For Bretagne—the first diabetes alert dog to come from the Penn Vet Working Dog Center (WDC)—her new career has instilled constant vigilance of the potential pitfalls of the disease.
Since graduating from the WDC in late October, Bretagne, a two-year-old Golden Retriever, has devoted her time to monitoring her new owner, Wayne Mowry of Bloomingdale, N.J., who has had Type I diabetes since age 10, around the clock.
“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 says. “She alerts me before the drop in blood sugar has a drastic impact on my health.”
The very first dog to arrive at the WDC, Bretagne—who was named after one of two still-surviving dogs deployed to the World Trade Center site on 9/11—was clearly a perfect candidate to become a diabetes alert dog when she grew up.
“She was very social, and really preferred to be around people as opposed to off in the rubble pile,” says Cindy Otto, executive director of the WDC. “She has a great nose, and we felt [training her as a diabetes alert dog] was the perfect opportunity for her to put it to use along with her social connection.”
Since completing the WDC program and obtaining Diabetes Alert Dog Alliance certification, Bretagne now spends her days with Mowry, pawing him when his blood sugar begins to reach unsafe levels, or even waking him from his sleep so that he can take the appropriate actions.
“Low blood sugar is Bretagne’s owner’s major issue, but the dogs can also be trained to detect when blood sugar is too high,” Otto says.
The Diabetes Alert Dog program at the WDC is designed to investigate a detection dog’s ability to recognize and alert when a person's blood sugar is out of the normal range. Dogs are first introduced to and imprinted on the hypoglycemic scent using saliva samples obtained when a person’s blood sugar is in the range of 50mg/dL to 70mg/dL.
The dogs eventually move on to training with a scent wheel, which presents the dogs with a variety of odors and allows the trainers to selectively reward only the dogs’ indication at the target scent. The dogs also undergo extensive environmental desensitization—gaining the ability to calmly navigate everything from public transit and restaurants, to distractions like toddlers or food.
Otto says dogs like Bretagne can be helpful for two main diabetes populations: children, who often sleep through blood sugar raises or drops; and adults like Mowry, who after dealing with the disease for years, become desensitized to the early symptoms.
“We suspect that there may be other benefits of the companionship but that’s probably a little bit softer,” Otto says. “Despite all of the technical progress in the treatment and monitoring of diabetes, there’s still an important role for these dogs.”
To learn more about the Diabetes Alert Dog program, visit the WDC website.