The owner is expected to continue to work with the dog when they go home. “Dogs are not machines,” Harris says, “so they may miss a certain percentage of low blood glucose incidences at first, but as the bond grows between the team members, the dog will begin to alert more and more accurately. Usually, they start alerting very well once they get comfortable in the new surroundings, the home, the school, work. And as they get more comfortable with their person, it gets very accurate.”
Costs of ownership
A trained diabetes alert dog is worth about $25,000 when you tally up the costs of breeding, veterinary visits, training — both before being placed and with the new owner — and follow-up services after a dog has been placed. Few health insurance companies cover the costs of diabetes alert dogs, because their effectiveness has not been proven in scientific studies. Harris hopes that the research D4D is doing will change that. D4D does not charge for the dogs it places, but it does charge an application and service fee of about $150. However, D4D currently serves only a handful of western states. Other dog-training organizations have different policies, and some charge a fee for the dog.
Even if the dog is free, there are still costs associated with keeping it. Dogs need food, for example, and regular veterinary care. They also need to be walked and taken care of generally throughout their lives. In the United States, the expenses of buying, training, and maintaining a guide dog or service animal can be deducted as a medical expense on one’s tax return. But, as with human medical and dental expenses, only the dollar amount that is more than 7.5% of a person’s adjusted gross income can be deducted.
Choosing a trainer
A handful of trainers currently train dogs to sense hypoglycemia, and some say their dogs are trained to sense high blood glucose, or hyperglycemia, as well. But because this type of dog training is relatively new, and because most organizations will not divulge exactly how they do it, people interested in acquiring a diabetes alert dog must do some careful research before paying for or adopting a dog. Breanne Harris offers the following suggestions:
- Look for organizations that are either accredited with Assistance Dogs International or members of the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners. Read up on what each organization requires from its members, and see how the organization or trainer in question compares.
- Look for organizations that use positive reinforcement training methods.
- Don’t get a dog from a trainer or organization that will not allow you to visit the training facility (and kennels, if they use them).
- Spend time with the trainers and staff, and ask questions.
- Meet or speak to other clients or customers, if possible.
- Search the Internet to see what other people’s experiences have been with a group or trainer.
- Ask the trainer about follow-up support: What is provided, and how?
Living independent lives
Harris received Destiny, a small black Lab, four years ago while she was attending the University of California, Davis, where she was studying neurobiology, physiology, and behavior. Originally, she wanted to be a physician, but now she is thinking about graduate school for nursing. In the meantime, she works at D4D helping to support studies to demonstrate the effectiveness of the dogs.
“At first, I thought she was just this goofy dog, but after the first two weeks, I realized that she was stubborn just like me. She’s smart, she’s feisty, and she loves to play. She’s the perfect dog for me.”