Most people who have dogs have them for companionship — and because they’re also cute, furry, fun, and great company. But some dogs have important jobs beyond being a loved and treasured member of the family. Some dogs are service dogs, meaning that they help people with certain medical and mental health conditions. Read on to learn more about these special dogs and to find out if you could benefit from having one.
What do service dogs do?
According to the American Kennel Club, “A service dog is a dog specifically trained to perform work for a person with a disability,” helping the person lead a more independent life. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, including people with history of such an impairment, and people perceived by others as an impairment. The ADA considers both type 1 and type 2 diabetes to be disabilities.
There are different kinds of service dogs, and their jobs are directly related to the person’s disability. For example, a guide dog helps a blind or visually impaired person navigate their environment. Medical alert dogs have special training based on the specific condition that their owner has. If someone has severe asthma or COPD, for example, a medical alert dog can be trained to remind the person to check his or her oxygen level. The dog can also retrieve medication, go for help, wake someone up if they are not breathing well, or alert others to an emergency. If someone experiences dizziness upon standing, a medical alert dog is trained to provide stability, retrieve medication, or go for help if the person falls.
What does a diabetic alert dog do?
Diabetic alert dogs are trained to alert a person with diabetes in advance of hypoglycemia (low blood glucose) or hyperglycemia (high blood glucose) before they become dangerous. For people who have hypoglycemia unawareness — a condition in which a person does not get symptoms of low blood glucose, such as shaking, sweating, or weakness — a diabetic alert dog can literally be a lifesaver. Due to their innate sense of smell, diabetic alert dogs are trained to smell chemicals that are produced when glucose levels are too high (i.e., ketones) or too low (i.e., isoprene).
In addition, diabetic alert dogs can retrieve objects, such as medications, retrieve a cell phone, alert other members in the household if help is needed, and, in some cases, dial 911. They can also be a source of emotional and mental support for people with diabetes, given that diabetes is a chronic condition which can lead to diabetes distress and depression for many people.
It’s important to realize that diabetic alert dogs are not a substitute for monitoring your blood glucose, either with a meter or a CGM (continuous glucose monitor) or managing your diabetes.
What breeds of dogs are good for diabetic alert dogs?
Certain breeds of dogs are well-suited to be diabetic alert dogs:
- Labrador retrievers
- Golden retrievers
- Australian shepherds
How are dogs trained to become diabetic alert dogs?
There are a number of service dog training programs in the United States, including the following:
- Dogs 4 Diabetics
- SIT Service Dogs
- Diabetic Alert Dogs of America
- Early Alert Canines
- 4 Paws for Ability
How do you know if you need a diabetic alert dog?
Diabetic alert dogs are trained to support people with type 1 diabetes or people with type 2 diabetes who take insulin. Having hypoglycemia unawareness or hypoglycemia during the night are situations that can benefit from a diabetic alert dog.
Since people with type 2 diabetes who don’t take insulin tend to not have severe or life-threatening low blood sugars, a diabetic alert dog may not be appropriate. However, someone with type 2 diabetes not taking insulin may benefit from a service dog or an emotional support dog, for example.
If you are interested in getting a diabetic alert dog, talk with your primary care provider or endocrinologist for recommendations for dog-training organizations. You can contact these organizations (see above) directly, too, and may be able to complete an application online.
What else do you need to consider before getting a diabetic alert dog?
Training a dog to be a diabetic alert dog is quite rigorous, and as a result, can be expensive (upwards of $25,000) and take a long time (possibly up to two years). Some organizations may provide training for free (if you qualify) or may provide financial assistance or payment plans. Insurance may provide coverage, as well. You can also train dogs yourself (learn more here).
Diabetic alert dogs need ongoing training to help them maintain their skills. They’ll also need to be fed, bathed, exercised, and brought to regular veterinary appointments for medical care.
Want to learn more about dogs for diabetes? Read “Diabetes Alert Dogs.”