Dogs assisting diabetics: What is it and how does it work?

minute read
A diabetic alert dog, sitting on a beach.
Photo credit - Krista Grear.

Living with diabetes, you face unique challenges. It takes careful management of your blood sugar level to maintain good health. But in recent years, a remarkable tool has developed to lend a helping paw; dogs. There are now dogs assisting diabetics in many different ways – They offer support and companionship and are also trained in the early detection of blood sugar changes.

Let’s explore the world of dogs assisting diabetics, investigate the benefits of having a diabetic assistance dog, how it works, how you get one, and what you should consider first.

Here’s everything you need to know:

  • The role of dogs in diabetes management
  • Benefits of having a diabetic alert dog
  • Considerations for owning a diabetic alert dog
  • What are the unique qualities and characteristics of a diabetic alert dog?
  • How to get a diabetic alert dog in India
  • How to get the most benefit out of your diabetic alert dog
  • Frequently asked questions

The role of dogs in diabetes management

Managing diabetes can be hard, both physically and emotionally. You need to constantly monitor your blood glucose level to prevent complications, and at the same time invest in your mental health, keeping yourself motivated and focused. Dogs have proven valuable allies in these efforts, offering unique assistance to diabetics.

Here’s how dogs are assisting with diabetes management:

Types of diabetes assistance dogs

  • Trained diabetic alert dogs (DADs) – Trained diabetic alert dogs are highly skilled dogs that go through extensive training, learning how to recognise and respond to changes in blood sugar levels. Once they’ve detected a low or high blood sugar level shift, they’re trained to alert their owners (by nudging or pawing, for example), letting them know they need to take immediate action.
  • Medical response dogs (MRDs) – Medical response dogs are trained to detect changes in blood glucose level and respond in targeted ways. They can fetch medication or emergency supplies, activate an alarm to call for help, or in critical situations even get in touch with emergency services.
  • Emotional support dogs (ESDs) – Though not trained in diabetes detection, emotional support dogs can still be helpful to diabetics. They offer comfort, companionship and emotional stability, helping their owners reduce their stress and anxiety. Being less stressed and anxious can then improve blood glucose management.

How do dogs detect blood sugar level changes?

  • Natural ability to sense chemical changes – Dogs have a remarkable sense of smell. This allows them to detect subtle changes in the chemical makeup of human breath and sweat. This natural ability is the basis for their ability to detect changes in blood sugar level.
  • Olfactory training (smell training) and scent detection – With specialised training, dogs learn to associate specific scents with high or low blood sugar levels. Having learnt to recognise these scents, dogs can pick them out from other smells in their environment.

Dogs’ keen sense of smell, capability for training, and loyalty and companionship, make them valuable partners in diabetes management. These unique traits make dogs assisting diabetics an incredible and achievable reality.

Benefits of having a diabetic alert dog

Having a diabetic alert dog can bring many benefits. They can help you manage your blood glucose levels and provide practical and emotional support as well.

Here’s how diabetic alert dogs are supporting diabetics:

Improved blood sugar control

  • Alerting to low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) – Dogs have an incredible ability to detect changes in our body chemistry, including changes in our blood sugar level. Diabetic alert dogs can be trained to recognise the scent of low blood sugar and alert their owner. This gives diabetics an early warning so they can get their blood glucose level back within range as quickly as possible.
  • Alerting to high blood sugar (hyperglycemia) – As well as being able to detect low blood sugar, dogs can also be trained to recognise the scent of high blood sugar. This timely alert lets diabetics know their blood glucose level is spiking and that they need to take appropriate action, adjusting their diet or taking insulin.
  • Early detection – Diabetic alert dogs can detect changes in blood sugar level very early. Raising an alarm allows their owner to take action, preventing extreme highs or lows and improving overall blood sugar control.
  • Acting as non-invasive blood sugar monitors – With a dog monitoring blood sugar levels, you don’t need to frequently prick your finger and test using a blood glucometer. This can be very helpful for diabetics who struggle with glucometers or have difficulty sensing changes in their blood glucose level.
  • Increased awareness – As a diabetic, having a diabetic alert dog acts as a constant reminder and keeps blood glucose management more actively in mind. This heightened awareness can help make diabetics with diabetic alert dogs more proactive in their self-care.

Increased safety and peace of mind

  • Emergency response – In an emergency situation, diabetic alert dogs can be trained to get help or fetch medical supplies. Being able to contact emergency services can save lives.
  • Reduced anxiety – Living with diabetes can be stressful. Diabetic alert dogs are a calming presence. Being with you, they reduce anxiety and provide a sense of security and safety.

Improved emotional well-being

  • Companionship – Diabetic alert dogs form a strong bond with their owner. This companionship helps reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation, which some diabetics struggle with.
  • Emotional support – Dogs offer unconditional love and empathy. They also provide a source of comfort during challenging times. This can help reduce stress, improve mood, and increase overall emotional well-being.

Strengthened purpose and resolve

  • Partnership – There’s a unique partnership between a diabetic alert dog and its owner. It’s a partnership built on trust and mutual reliance. Over time, this bond gets stronger and stronger, growing into a supportive, solid relationship.
  • Sense of purpose – Having a diabetic alert dog provides a sense of purpose, responsibility, and fulfilment. This can be very emotionally rewarding. And caring for the dog’s well-being reinforces routine, which can also be a useful tool in maintaining good diabetes management.

Having a diabetic alert dog can significantly improve a diabetic’s daily life. They help support good blood glucose management, increase safety and peace of mind, and improve emotional well-being.

Considerations for owning a diabetic alert dog

Bringing a diabetic alert dog into your life is a significant decision and it needs careful consideration. Before starting this journey, you should understand what owning a diabetic alert dog involves.

Here are some of the key considerations to help you make an informed choice:

Financial implications and costs

  • Initial cost – Getting a trained diabetic alert dog usually requires a significant investment. These dogs are highly specialised, have gone through targeted training, and have had their skills certified. Before getting a dog you should research and understand the initial cost and financial commitments.
  • Ongoing expenses – Owning a dog means taking on additional ongoing costs. You’ll need to take care of their food, veterinary care, grooming, supplies, etc. You should also consider additional expenses like regular training, healthcare, and possible emergencies.

Responsibilities and commitments

  • Time and dedication – Diabetic alert dogs need consistent training, care, exercise and attention. They depend on their owners to look after them and take care of their well-being as well as ongoing training needs. You should be prepared to invest time and effort into building and maintaining a healthy and fulfilling partnership.
  • Lifestyle adjustments – Owning a diabetic alert dog may mean you need to make adjustments to your daily routine and lifestyle. You should consider exercise, travel, and accommodation and make sure your dog’s needs are met.

Living arrangements and lifestyle adjustments

  • Housing – Make sure your home can house a dog. If you’re renting, check with your landlord and review your tenancy agreement to make sure dogs are allowed.
  • Allergies and sensitivities – Check if anyone in your home is allergic or sensitive to dogs. It’s important to recognise that while a diabetic alert dog may improve your health, it may negatively impact other people’s health and well-being.

Legal rights and access considerations

  • Service dog rights – Unlike other dogs, service dogs typically have more legal rights and protections. For example, they’re often allowed in public places, transport and accommodations where a normal dog wouldn’t be. You should study the specific laws and regulations in India and your state regarding assistance dogs (a good place to start is the Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment, Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (Divyangjan)).
  • Public perception and education – Be prepared for the fact you will likely need to educate others about the role and importance of diabetic alert dogs. Not everyone is familiar with them or the role they play in diabetes management, and you’ll need to promote positive awareness and understanding.

Owning a diabetic alert dog can change your life. But before getting one, you need to put in careful thought and consideration. Assess the financial, lifestyle and legal aspects. Work out if it will be a successful and positive partnership.

What are the unique qualities and characteristics of a diabetic alert dog?

While there are many benefits of diabetic alert dogs, not every dog is suited to become one. These highly trained dogs need specific qualities and characteristics that make them a good fit for the role and able to assist diabetics.

Here’s what makes a dog well-suited to work as a diabetic alert dog:

Breeds commonly used as diabetic alert dogs

  • Labrador Retrievers – Known for their intelligence, gentle nature, and trainability, Labrador Retrievers are often chosen to be diabetic alert dogs. Their flexible nature and skillset, along with their strong bond with humans, make them excellent companions for diabetics.
  • Golden Retrievers – Like Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers are also calm, intelligent dogs who feel a natural desire to help people. They’re well-known for being reliable and empathetic, able to understand and appropriately respond to their owners’ moods, making them a popular choice for diabetic alert work.
  • German Shepherds – German Shepherds are loyal, intelligent, and highly trainable. Their protective nature and keen sense of smell make them excellent dogs for diabetic assistance work.
  • Poodles – Poodles are sensitive, intelligent, and highly trainable dogs. They have an incredible sense of smell, which makes them very well-suited for work involving the detection of specific scents.

Traits and temperament needed for dogs assisting diabetics

  • Alertness – Diabetic alert dogs need to be highly observant and attentive. They should also naturally desire to pay close attention to their owner’s well-being. This will allow them to detect changes in blood sugar level, and motivate them to take action when needed.
  • Trainability – To be suitable for diabetic assistance work, dogs must be highly trainable and responsive to commands. To fit their role and help with diabetes management, they need to be able to learn and perform specific tasks.
  • Calm and gentle nature – To provide effective emotional support a dog must have a calm and gentle temperament. With a relaxed nature, they can help promote and contribute to a stress-free environment. These traits allow them to support and positively connect with diabetics.

Training and certification of diabetic alert dogs

  • Extensive training – To become diabetic alert dogs, dogs go through extensive training and learn how to recognise and respond to specific scents that indicate a change in blood sugar level. This training includes scent detection, response behaviours, and obedience training.
  • Certification and evaluation – Diabetic alert dogs play a valuable role in diabetes management, and it’s important for their owner’s health and well-being that their skills and training are up to a sufficient standard. To make sure of this, reputable assistance dog organisations assess and certify the skills and ability of diabetic alert dogs. This certification confirms that the dog has met the necessary standards, is reliable, and can perform their required tasks.
  • Continuing education and reinforcement – To provide effective, ongoing diabetes management, it’s vital that a diabetic assistance dog has ongoing training and reinforcement. This helps them maintain their skills and means they can continue to be relied on. Regular practice sessions and reinforcement of learned behaviours keep the dog’s training up to standard.

While certain breeds and traits are often well-suited to diabetic alert dogs, it’s important to remember that not all dogs are the same. Even within the same breed, individual characteristics and temperament vary.

To determine if a dog is suited for diabetic assistance work they’re evaluated individually, on a case-by-case basis.

How to get a diabetic alert dog in India

Diabetic alert dogs are a very recent tool in diabetes management, and the number of organisations that can provide them is small. And unfortunately, at present, there aren't any organisations in India – So for now, you'd need to get a diabetic alert dog overseas and bring it into the country.

However, diabetic alert dog organisations are constantly being established and growing their operations, so this may soon change.

If you're thinking about getting a diabetic alert dog in India (either when an organisation establishes itself in India or from an organisation overseas), you have to follow the correct process.

This will give you the best chance of finding a diabetic alert dog that’s right for you.

Here’s what you need to know to make sure you get the right dog:

Choose a reputable assistance dog organisation

  • Do your research and get recommendations – Start by researching reputable organisations, that specialise in training and placing diabetic alert dogs (Assistance Dogs International is a great starting point). Get recommendations from healthcare professionals, diabetes support groups, or other diabetics who have experience with diabetic assistance dogs.
  • Check credentials – Once you’ve found an organisation, check their credentials, certifications and affiliations. Look for organisations that follow ethical standards, and have a proven track record of successful placements. A diabetic alert dog is a highly trained animal, and you need to make sure you’re getting it from a reliable provider who knows what they’re doing and has the right experience and qualifications.

Complete the application and evaluation process

  • Submit an initial application – Once you’ve found your assistance dog organisation, the first step to getting a diabetic alert dog from them is to submit an application. You’ll need to provide detailed information about your medical history, lifestyle, and specific diabetes management needs.
  • Go through an assessment and interviews – After your application has been received, you’ll likely need to meet with the organisation to go through interviews and an assessment. These are to better understand your requirements and determine if you’re suitable for a diabetic alert dog. Remember, they’re not just trying to work out if a diabetic alert dog is a good fit for you. They’re also gauging if you’d be a good dog owner.

Go through training and placement

  • Matching process – Once you’ve been determined to be a good fit for a diabetic alert dog, the organisation will carefully match you with a dog. They’ll do this by considering your specific needs, lifestyle and compatibility.
  • Training sessions – After you’ve been matched with a dog, you’ll need to go through training to learn how to work with them effectively. This training will include studying the handling techniques, learning the alert signals and practising commands.
  • Placement – During the placement period, the diabetic alert dog will gradually be introduced to your life and home. The organisation will provide support and guidance throughout this process.

Take on post-placement support and follow-ups

  • Ongoing support – Reputable assistance dog organisations offer post-placement support. This is so they can address any questions, concerns, or training needs that may come up. They’ll provide guidance, helping make sure you and your diabetic alert dog form a successful partnership.
  • Follow-up evaluations – The organisation may also perform periodic follow-up evaluations. This is to assess the diabetic alert dog’s progress and address any additional training or support needs.

Finding the right diabetic alert dog, and going through the process of getting one, can take time and patience. But the benefits can easily make it worthwhile.

Remember, each organisation may have its own individual process, so talk to them directly and get detailed guidance and information.

How to get the greatest benefits of having a diabetic alert dog

Dogs assisting diabetics have proven extraordinary companions and returned many benefits to their owners. By fully embracing the advantages a diabetic alert dog can offer, you can increase the value you get out of it.

Here’s how you can boost the benefits a diabetic alert dog can provide:

Build a strong partnership

  • Trust and communication – The stronger your bond with your diabetic alert dog, the more effective they’ll be at working with you. Establish a strong foundation of trust, talk to them openly, and build a deep companionship.
  • Regular training and practice – To keep a diabetic alert dog’s performance high, it’s important to reinforce their training. Practice regularly and train your dog, and you can keep their skills sharp and reliable.

Take full advantage of early detection

  • Prompt action – When you receive an alert from your diabetic alert dog, respond quickly. This gives you the best chance of getting your blood glucose level back under control and also provides positive reinforcement to your dog.
  • Collaboration with your doctor and training provider – Share information about your diabetic alert dog’s alerts with your doctor and the training organisation. By sharing this information you provide valuable insights into your diabetes management and your dog’s performance.

Seek emotional support and mental well-being

  • Bonding and quality time – Set aside time to bond with your diabetic alert dog. Go for walks and play together. This will strengthen your dog’s bond with you and improve your mental and emotional well-being.
  • Mental health benefits – Recognise the emotional support that your diabetic alert dog provides, and go to them for support when you’re stressed, anxious or feeling low. They can provide comfort and companionship and help improve your mental health.

Raise awareness

  • Sharing your storyShare your experiences and the benefits you’ve received from having a diabetic alert dog. By sharing your story, you can help raise awareness and educate and inspire others to get diabetic alert dogs too.
  • Participating in support groups – Join support groups and online communities for diabetics with diabetic alert dogs. Engage in discussions, share knowledge, and offer support to other dog owners. These communities will help give you a sense of belonging and can provide valuable tips and insights so you can get the most out of your diabetic alert dog.

By fully embracing the benefits of dogs assisting diabetics, you can create a strong partnership and significantly improve your diabetes management.

Frequently asked questions about dogs assisting diabetics

If you’re considering whether or not to get a diabetic alert dog, it’s common to have questions.

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about dogs assisting diabetics and the answers:

How accurate are diabetic alert dogs in detecting blood sugar changes?

When it comes to detecting blood sugar change, diabetic alert dogs have demonstrated an impressive degree of accuracy.

A 2019 study of 27 dogs across 4000 out-of-range episodes found that the dogs could detect the change 70% of the time. They were typically better at detecting hypoglycaemic episodes (low blood sugar), identifying them 83% of the time, compared to hyperglycaemic (high blood sugar) episodes which they identified 67% of the time.

The level of success varied by dog (4 of the dogs managed a 100% success rate), with the partnership and household significantly affecting performance. For example, whether the dog was previously a pet, when it was trained, and whether its partner was an adult or a child all impacted how effective the dog was at detecting blood sugar changes.

Can any dog be trained as a diabetic alert dog?

No, not every dog can be trained as a diabetic alert dog. To be suitable to work as a diabetic alert dog, a dog needs specific traits and characteristics.

Certain breeds, such as labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, German shepherds, and poodles are often well-suited, as they have a keen sense of smell and are highly trainable.

However, the nature of the individual dog is also important.

How can I get a diabetic alert dog in India?

To get a diabetic alert dog in India, start by researching reputable assistance dog organisations. Assistance Dogs International is a helpful resource for this.

Once you’ve found a reputable organisation, submit an application, go through the interview and evaluation process, and get trained on how to work with a diabetic alert dog.

Each organisation may have its own process, so connect with them directly and get detailed guidance.

Are diabetic alert dogs considered service animals?

Yes, diabetic alert dogs are considered service animals. They’re trained to perform specific tasks related to diabetes management and have legal rights and protections in many countries, including India.

Look through your local laws and regulations for more information about service animals – A good place to start is the Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment, Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (Divyangjan).

Can a diabetic alert dog replace regular blood sugar monitoring?

Diabetic alert dogs shouldn’t replace regular blood sugar monitoring.

They can help provide early warnings of blood sugar changes and provide an extra amount of support but you should still monitor your blood glucose level with traditional methods (such as with a glucose meter).

Can diabetic alert dogs be trained to assist children with diabetes?

Yes, diabetic alert dogs can be trained to assist people of all ages, including children.

However, you may need to make additional considerations when introducing a diabetic alert dog into a family with young children.

Conclusion: Dogs assisting diabetics – A remarkable tool providing physical and emotional support

Dogs assisting diabetics can play a valuable role in diabetes management. They can provide early detection of blood glucose changes and be trained to fetch medical supplies and get help. They’re also a great source of mental and emotional support.

By understanding how diabetic alert dogs work, the benefits they can bring, the considerations you should make before you get one, and the process to get one, you can start to determine if a diabetic alert dog is right for you.

Remember to consult with your doctor and get their opinion. They understand your unique requirements and goals and can provide personalised advice.

Disclaimer: The information in this article is for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have questions about your medical condition you should always consult your doctor or qualified healthcare provider.

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