Diabetes Alert Dogs

Mary Alice Monroe is the New York Times best-selling author of multiple novels. Her latest book, A Lowcountry Christmas, was released last week and tells the story of a young man named Taylor who has just returned from Afghanistan with PTSD. The story is about the healing powers of service dogs as seen through this young man’s journey. Monroe is a lowcountry author who I’ve been fortunate enough to interview several times. She is gracious, and her passion for various conservation efforts — including sea turtles, birds of prey, and butterflies — is infectious. She recently spoke to a group of women at a local college, and I was there on behalf of our local book store to sell her books. It was an unusually warm fall day, but the auditorium had been transformed into a Christmas party. Holiday cookies and Christmas tea were served to the guests and Christmas lights sparkled in the lobby. I led the author to the table of books, and while she signed, we talked about her research with service dogs. She said during her research she learned that service dogs are making a huge difference where other therapies have failed. “As one young vet I met said, ‘I love my wife but I need my dog.’”

My conversation with Mary Alice Monroe got me thinking about diabetes alert dogs (D.A.Ds). Years ago I wrote an article about diabetes alert dogs and interviewed families, doctors, and animal trainers. I learned that these service dogs are “scent trained” with cotton balls of sweat from a person’s body during a low blood sugar. In recent years, this seemingly simple solution has garnered a great deal of attention and popularity because it seems like a great solution to every parent’s fear. What parents wouldn’t feel better with an attentive dog sleeping by their child at night who could sense a drop in their child’s blood sugar and wake the whole house if necessary?

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There are no simple solutions of course, and training a dog can be a long and expensive process that costs up to $20,000. When Mary Alice Monroe spoke to her audience about the Charleston Pets for Vets program, she emphasized the fact that this group trains dog from shelters, dogs who might otherwise be euthanized. This means that the cost is much lower, approximately $2,000 instead of $20,000, and that not only is a vet’s life saved, but the dog is saved, too. Similarly, there are non-profit diabetes alert dog organizations that are able to provide trained dogs to families at a much lower rate, but the wait list is much longer.

Wanting to hear from someone who actually has a diabetes alert dog, I reached out to Stephanie Tomko, who I interviewed in an earlier blog entry about running with Type 1 diabetes. Stephanie says she never meant to get a service dog.

“We had a chocolate lab for 12 years and sadly had to put her down in 2013. When we were ready to get another dog, it just so happened that the breeder we found was also a trainer for service dogs and the puppy we chose was bred for training. We decided to begin training and ‘imprint’ Gus with the scent of my lows when he was one year old. For close to a year, every time my blood sugar was low, I swabbed the inside of my mouth when I was below 60 mg/dl, and put it in an empty strip container and into the freezer. We then sent Gus to Steve’s farm for two months where he was trained to alert anytime he smelled that scent.”

“Now that Gus is home, we are behavior training him so eventually he can go with me in public, but it’s a long process that we are doing at our own pace. Having a dog with such a special talent is awesome, but it’s also a lot of work and a lot of responsibility. He needs to stay fresh on his ability to identify that scent, which means that I need to consistently reinforce the scent training and make sure he’s not getting rusty. My ultimate goal is to run with him as a service dog, but we have a long way to go before that can happen. In the meantime, Gus is part of the family, still gets in trouble, and loves free ‘pup cups’ (cups of whipped cream) from Starbucks!”

We all want someone who has our back, whether we are a veteran with PTSD or a person with Type 1 diabetes. After listening to Mary Alice Monroe’s presentation about A Lowcountry Christmas and speaking with Stephanie, I am in awe of these dogs. I imagine that it would be incredibly reassuring to know what I didn’t have to be responsible 100% of the time, that I could count on someone to lick my hand or bark if my blood sugar dropped. Wouldn’t that be the greatest Christmas gift of all?