Here is the text of the guest blog I wrote for “Bitter-Sweet Diabetes”. Please click on these links if you would like to see the final versions:
Rainie is my diabetic alert dog, and even though I’ve experienced lots of changes and advancements in diabetic technology since I was diagnosed 55 years ago, nothing has changed my life as much as Rainie has. I hope to explain about diabetic alert dogs (DADs), and tell you some stories about how she has impacted my life. Please note: when I refer to Rainie’s training, or the training of a DAD, I am talking only about the training Rainie has received. I help to train the dogs at Early Alert Canines (EAC), and am supported by EAC’s head trainer, Carol Edwards, in order to keep Rainie certified with ADI (Assistance Dogs International).
First, let me answer this question: What is a Diabetic Alert Dog (also known as a Hypoglycemic Alert Dog)?
A diabetic alert dog (DAD) has been trained to recognize the biochemical scent that a diabetic’s body produces as the blood glucose begins to drop. Upon smelling the scent, the dog will then alert its partner, thus avoiding acutely dangerous hypoglycemia and long-term diabetes complications. Some DADs are trained to smell and alert on the scent of rapidly rising blood sugar also.
Rainie and I have been a team for over two years now. When we were placed together, she was a semi-rowdy, 20 month-old, golden retriever/yellow Lab puppy. She was raised as a seeing-eye puppy, but was ‘career-changed’ and trained as a DAD because she is very afraid of motorcycles. Now, she is my best friend, non-judgmental companion and perpetual blood sugar alert system. Because she is a service dog, she can come with me anyplace the general public is allowed. And her presence and constant monitoring allows me to experience a greater peace of mind. I’m more confident because she will alert me before I get into trouble.
I like to consider her alerts a warning, as if she’s telling me, “Pay attention to your blood sugar NOW! You’re changing fast.” Her alerts begin as gentle nudges that will get stronger if I ignore her – even to the point of getting my husband, daughter, or a friend if I’m not paying attention. Rainie has been trained to be ‘on duty’ no matter where we are or what we’re dong. She has alerted me in places like the movies, on hikes, while I’m in the shower, in restaurants, at the farmers’ market, on airplanes, working in the garden, at the doctor’s office, while I’m swimming at the gym, etc. She will wake me up at night (which is important), and once got my husband from another room when I was sick with a high fever, and was too asleep to notice her nudges, which proceeded to her lying on top of me. She alerts me when I’m driving, and has blocked me from getting into the driver’s seat when she’s felt my blood sugar is too low – and she was right each time!
There are many wonderful things about having a DAD. First of all, her alerting indicates my BS is dropping at this instance. In fact sometimes the dogs alert before the meters can measure a change. They can even smell that your blood sugar is going to drop soon! (And this is much more accurate that the 20 minute delay of a continuous glucose monitor.) The first time Rainie alerted me early, I was at work. I did my BS and it was 180 after breakfast – that number was expected, so I did my BS again 10 minutes later (as I’m supposed to do), and it was about 182. But she kept alerting me! I repeated a test again 10 minutes later, and the reading was 179. Yet Rainie kept alerting. Finally, I tested myself a fourth time, and my BS had dropped 100 points! I was amazed, and ate some glucose. Another pleasure about DADs is that their alerting is consistent and non-judgmental. I don’t tend to get annoyed at Rainie like I would if my husband told me, “Hilary, don’t you think you should check your blood sugar?” I know she’s alerting out of duty and love. And by alerting when my BS (blood sugar) begins to drop quickly, I can often avoid going too high afterword (often called ‘re-bounding). My liver no longer has the need to push glucose out into my blood stream because my blood sugar levels haven’t gone so low that the liver is signaled to correct the hypoglycemia. Having a dog is also a wonderful way to meet people, get exercise, and I find I’m not so self-conscious about having diabetes. People will ask me, “What does she do?” or “What does she ‘early alert on?” and I’ll tell them that she is a diabetic alert dog and smells my low blood sugar. I can then talk about diabetes and DADs without having the focus on me. But I think the best ‘gift’ I get from having Rainie, my diabetic alert dog, is a fuller sense of peace-of-mind. I no longer have to fear that my blood sugar will drop and that I’ll be unaware of it. I can exercise, drive, and do almost anything while not worrying that I’m falling into danger. Because of having diabetes so long, I can no longer feel when I’m going low, and having Rainie’s attention and monitoring makes me feel safer in the world, and during sleep. My family doesn’t worry as much about me either. My husband isn’t afraid to go on long trips because he knows that Rainie will help to keep me aware and safe. And, even with all her life-saving responsibilities, Rainie knows just when to put her head in my lap when life with diabetes has gotten me down.
One of the reasons I’m excited about working with Early Alert Canines (EAC) is we train and place DADs with families with young diabetic children. We call those dogs “Skilled Companions”. I wish every family with a diabetic child could have a DAD. Looking back on my own childhood, I wish I had had a blood sugar alert dog. The dog would have been able to express what I, as an infant and child, could not. The dog could have affirmed to my parents that my blood sugar was dropping, and that I was not cranky from teething pains, growth spurts, adolescence, etc. And even though kids might get angry with their parents, a gentle nuzzle from a dog is usually returned in kind.
As a nurse, and a person born with diabetes, I can only imagine what a dog could do for a parent’s peace of mind. The dog would be another set of eyes and ears (and nose) to monitor the young child’s (or children’s) BS levels and alert the child’s parent when appropriate. The DAD can help shoulder some of the parent’s responsibilities, while, hopefully, allying some of their fears. One mother who just graduated from EAC with her son and their dog tearfully exclaimed, “Thank you! I don’t feel so alone!” Here is another story that shows why I’m passionate about DADs being placed in families with diabetic children: One dog has been placed in a home with three diabetic children under age 6. The dog sleeps in the hallway between the children’s bedrooms, and alerts the mom when one of the kid’s blood sugar begins dropping rapidly, bringing her to the appropriate child.
I apologize for getting on my soapbox! I wish I could tell you all the ways Rainie has changed my life and my relationship to my own diabetes. She is my friend and constant companion, as well as being my perpetual blood sugar alert system. She has truly saved my life at night and during one particular walk on the beach. There are so many stories to tell – and Rainie and I have only been together for a little over two years.
I’d like to make myself available to anyone who has questions about life with a diabetic alert dog! Please feel free to read my blog RainiAndMe.wordpress.com or contact me at mailto:HilarythePotter@gmail.com.
And, for those individuals interested in reading a blog about having a DAD while in college, please read my friend Amelia’s blog http://www.doggoestocollege.com
And one last story: Not long after Halloween, I was walking Rainie when a little boy named Jason came running with his cape flying behind him as he swung his light-saber from side to side. He was yelling, “Hey! Is that a Ewok?” I laughed and introduced him to my golden retriever named Rainie. He wanted to know why she had a red jacket on. As I explained to Jason and his mom that Rainie is a diabetic alert dog and that she notifies me when my blood sugar is dropping rapidly, the mom began to cry — Jason had just been released from the hospital after being found unconscious due to low blood sugar. As we were talking, Jason looked up at me, with his arms around Rainie’s neck, and said, “If I had a dog like Rainie, she would keep me safe – just like my light-saber.”