Diabetes alert dogs can be an emotional topic, as many PWDs (people with diabetes) are passionate about the need and trust these pups' senses even though the research community hasn't yet pinpointed the exact science behind these alerts.
Thankfully that's changing.
At the ADA Scientific Sessions in June, we saw a research poster with new data showing hard evidence that diabetes alert dogs can identify the chemical compounds specific to hypoglycemia, and that they can be trained to alert for hypos when they happen. Yes, the science proves it's not by chance alone and that these canines can actually tell when we're low! We brought you the story last year on what Dr. Dana Hardin at Lilly Diabetes is doing on this research front, and it was exciting to see her again and check out the poster presentation (even if it was a small sample size of only six dogs).
Interestingly, some other research on these dogs' sensing capabilities hasn't shown all positive results... but it will be interesting to see what we learn down the road. While we wait for the science to show us more, it's inspiring to hear stories from fellow PWDs who actually have D-alert dogs.
Today we're happy to welcome fellow PWD Tarra Robinson, a longtime type 1 who blogs over at My Crazy Life With My Diabetic Service Dog. I got to meet Tarra and her furry companion Duchess most recently at the CWD Friends For Life conference, and it was great to see her pup in action. I'm convinced she even detected a few blood sugar swings on my part.
Here's what Tarra has to say about the FFL experience and how Duchess responded, along with her personal story on her life with a D-alert Dog. Take it away, Tarra:
A Guest Post by Tarra Robinson
I've been living with type 1 diabetes for 33 years, and for the past three years have had a diabetic alert dog named Duchess. I've had seizures on and off for most of my three decades with diabetes, but it was at a critical stage about five years ago that finally convinced me to pursue an alert dog.
It was back in 2008 that I was diagnosed with hypoglycemia unawareness, and it was shortly after my mom (who was also a type 1 and died of a heart issue unrelated to diabetes) passed away. Personally, I think the fast onset and increase of lows was related to my grief, since losing your mom -- and the only diabetic you know -- was incredibly difficult. I tried my best to avoid lows but was never able to fully avoid them, and so I was really scared and searching for information about hypo unawareness.
Then, I came across an article about a young woman like me who had hypo unawareness and had gotten into quite a few near-deadly incidents before finally getting a diabetic alert dog. That sounded interesting to me, especially since I had been in those same situations myself. I'd had quite a few visits with EMS to the point where I knew their names, and then one day it all seemed to hit a very low point (pun intended). One afternoon, I was leaving work on the way back to the parking garage... and that's the last thing I remember before hearing my phone ring. It was three to four hours later, time that I'd lost, and somehow I managed to figure out where I was in an unknown place in the parking garage. I found glucose tabs in my purse and eventually headed home, and then later learned that I was in a place right near where the body of a female was found murdered.
I was never as scared as I was then, and knew I had to do something. Buying a CGM out of pocket, I was dismayed to find it missed most of my lows. I was desperate for anything that would help me, because it all felt like I was paralyzed by diabetes in that I couldn't drive or even leave my house without being afraid.
Thanks to that article I had read about a diabetes alert dog, I started that process and it took about two years to finally be able to get Duchess and bring her home after a week of training with her. We've been together for three years, and she has truly saved my life. I've had the best best A1c's ever and I have my life back. She's given me more than I can even explain and has added so much to my life.
Duchess just turned 5 on July 4, and we've had our shares of adventures, both good and bad... and those are ones I very much enjoy sharing and talking about on my blog, My Crazy Life With My Diabetic Service Dog.
The most recent adventure involved going to the Friends For Life conference for the first time. It was a life-changing experience for me, but it was also a little overwhelming in having Duchess there with me. We've been through a lot, but this was a first on many fronts for us both.
Duchess displayed the usual behavior I've seen her have around crowds and conference situations like that. I always worry about overwhelming her with having so many other diabetics around, although I've taken her to several conferences in our three years together and she's done very well.
With this conference being several days long, that's a challenge for any diabetic alert dog, but I could not be any prouder of how well Duchess handled the whole event. Her alerting did not falter, she didn't miss a high or low the whole trip! She also alerted to my new friends and a couple random children who were near us at the conference. The whole time, she was right on and alerting pretty consistently in advance of lows. So yes, I'm a proud "mom" based on that alone!
During the conference, Duchess showed characteristics of what a well-trained diabetic alert dog should be. She is not perfect, but I think she does a really wonderful job. There were two other dogs at the conference that I didn't think were good examples of this. One was in training and had accidents all over the registration area -- which is so sad, but just not proper service dog behavior. But that dog's still "in training" so there's more hope. Another alert dog was pulling the little girl around and she was allowing everyone to pet her dog. The poor dog was extremely overwhelmed and seemed to be extremely distracted. I know a big reason I do not allow anyone to pet my service dog is that it can lead to distraction. Some alert dogs won't get distracted by this, but I personally find it's easier to avoid petting to make the dog's job easier. The little girl also was using a choke collar and did not have any control over the service dog, and I watched her give the dog commands with no response. If you let your dog take the lead, most will stop working.
A service dog is a large amount of work and constant upkeep of training, and it's a very delicate balance to keep a service dog working and interested in their jobs. Poor behaving service animals negatively affect all service dog teams, so I always work extremely hard every day to keep up Duchess's training.
Aside from other those other alert dogs at FFL, Duchess also had the pleasure of meeting Jackson, a dog living with type 1 diabetes!
That was an interesting "Doggy D-Meetup." Duchess didn't seem to be keen on Jackson for some reason. I think it may have been awkward for her to tell another dog their blood sugar was off. She seemed to want to stay away from him, and so I am sure there was a reason. My best guess is that his blood sugar was off. Now, I didn't actually get to talk to Jackson's owner, but it was interesting that during the Adult Type 1 Casino Night event, Duchess was OK with Jackson but at other times she really wanted nothing to do with him. Duchess does not meet very many diabetic dogs, so this was an interesting experience for us both.
At times during the conference, Duchess hid between my legs when there was a lot of people or activity. But all I can say is that when it came time to leave this "Magic Kingdom of FFL," Duchess was not ready to go home. I know she was really sad to be leaving behind all her new friends and adventures in Orlando, and so was I. But I know we'll go again, and there's always the online community to keep in touch!
Overall, the experience was one that not only taught me new things about diabetes, but also reinforced what I thought in general about diabetes alert dogs. So much time and energy goes into these alert dogs, and it impacts everything from one's dating life, work, friendships, and even going to conferences. But in the end, they're totally worth it if you get one from an approved and credible training organization. I know my decision to get Duchess was the best decision for me, and I have been so blessed by this decision.
(Editor's note: Tarra notes that she wasn't able to snap any photos of Duchess with Jackson, but I did get a chance to pose for the above photo with Jackson during the conference. A 4-year-old English retriever diagnosed at just two months old, Jackson lives with his family in Illinois. He was back at FFL after missing last year's conference.)