A hero saved the life of seven-year-old Luke Nuttall, even though his mother, Doris, was just inches away. That hero was his three-year-old Labrador retriever, Jedi. Luke has type-1 diabetes, and Jedi is trained as a diabetic-alert dog. His mom checks her son’s blood sugar levels up to 10 times daily, but recently, when both she and Luke were sleeping in the same room, Jedi went into action. He woke up Doris, and she knew to check her son’s blood glucose level monitor. Its numbers appeared normal, so she went back to sleep.
Jedi wouldn’t give up, and Doris decided to prick Luke’s finger for a more accurate reading. Indeed, his blood glucose level had dropped to 57, considered quite low. She was able to give him a glucose pill and the little boy continued sleeping peacefully. In a Facebook post, Doris states that her son has “never woken up on his own from a low in over four and a half years.” Thanks to Jedi, who is not only his diabetic-alert dog but best friend forever, no harm came to Luke.
How it works
With his powerful canine sense of smell, Jedi is trained to recognize changes in Luke’s scent based on the level of glucose in his system. Jedi can smell such changes from a considerable distance — he doesn’t need to stay right beside his boy to protect him. When he senses changes in the blood’s chemical composition, the dog is trained to bring Luke his blood glucose monitoring device. That’s not all — if Jedi smells low blood sugar levels, he bows; if the levels are too high, he “waves” his paw.
All dogs have a sense of smell thousands of times stronger than humans, but certain breeds possess a stronger scenting ability than others. While theoretically any dog with high scent prowess might become a diabetic-alert animal, in practical terms, the most common types are:
- Labrador retrievers
- Golden retrievers
- Labrador-golden crosses
- “Doodles” — poodles crossed with Labrador or golden retrievers, for households with allergic individuals; poodles don’t shed and are considered relatively hypoallergenic
These breeds are easily trained and are also the breeds of choice for guide dogs, search-and-rescue and other types of service canines. Some diabetic-alert service providers breed their own dogs.
Diabetic-alert dogs require training by experienced professionals in the service-dog field. There are two basic types of diabetic-alert dogs. The first are trained to recognize symptoms of low blood sugar, alerting the patient or family members. The second type, like Jedi, is trained to detect changes in their person’s blood chemistry. Besides strong obedience training, diabetic-alert dogs are schooled in using particular signals to sound the alarm when there is a blood sugar problem. Beside barking — or waving a paw à la Jedi — such signals include:
- Holding a certain item in the mouth as a signaling device
- Sitting and staring at the person
- Touching the individual repeatedly
Diabetic-alert dog applications
Training a diabetic-alert dog costs thousands of dollars. Such dogs may sell for $25,000 or more — out of reach for many diabetics or their families. Fortunately, many non-profit organizations provide such trained animals at minimal cost, but it can take years between the patient’s initial application and actually receiving a dog. Although application criteria vary by agency, patients must generally provide:
- Letters of reference from physicians
- Medical records
- Household information
- Proof of ability to care for the dog
- Residence description
Diabetic-alert dogs are geared toward individuals who experience frequent low blood glucose levels. A diabetic whose condition is kept under control with medication and seldom has hypoglycemic episodes probably does not need the services of a diabetes-alert dog.
Beware of scams
On her Facebook page, Doris Nuttall warns readers about diabetic-dog scams. “Never let anyone tell you that these dogs are perfect and catch everything. Never pay $20,000 for a puppy that you have to train. What Jedi does took three years of training and tons of work,” she writes. Nuttall notes that such dogs aren’t “instant miracles,” but require a lot of hard work and additional training for the dog’s lifetime.
A legitimate diabetic-alert dog organization carefully matches the dog with the patient. When considering a diabetic-alert dog for yourself or a loved one, deal only with organizations with a long-term, successful track record of making such placements.
Jane Meggitt graduated from New York University and worked as a staff writer for a major New Jersey newspaper chain. Her work on pets, equines and health have appeared in dozens of publications, including The Daily Puppy, The Nest Pets, Horse News, Hoof Beats and Horseback magazines.