Man's Best Friend, a Life-Saving Specialist for Diabetics

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shutterstock_390194128 Black labrador via Shutterstock

A 7-year old California boy, who nearly died as a result of complications from hypoglycemia, is alive today thanks to his family’s dog and the canine's specially-trained sense of smell.

Luke Nuttall is a Type 1 diabetic whose blood sugar rapidly declined while he and his parents slept. But Jedi, the first grader's black labrador, sensed the drop and alerted Luke’s mother by lying on her torso until she woke up and was able to intervene.

But Jedi is no ordinary dog. He’s a Diabetic Alert Dog (DAD) — a type of service animal who's been taught to signal his owner when a diabetic's blood sugar reaches dangerous levels. Similar to bomb-sniffing dogs, these pups use their acute sense of smell to alert patients when levels deviate from normal levels.

"Our bodies are a unique makeup of organic chemicals," reads the Diabetic Alert Dog of America website, "all of which have very specific smells. Low and high blood sugar levels, or hypoglycemia/hyperglycemia, release chemicals in the body that have a distinct odor that is undetectable by humans. Our training process positively motivates these dogs to alert when these odors are detected."

The potential for canines to be employed as a way to aid diabetics can be traced back to at least 1999 when Mark Ruefenactht, a Type 1 diabetic and founder of Dogs4Diabetes, nearly went into a coma as a result of dangerous hypoglycemia. This condition is often called "hypoglycemia unawareness."

Luckily, he had Benton, a guide-dog-in-training by his side, who aggressively aroused Ruefenacht before falling into complete unconsciousness. This incident led him to believe in the power of dogs and how they could help others like him.

Training is intense, it's life-long and it begins when the pups are just a few weeks old. When they detect these chemical changes, they are taught to wave a paw, jump or to nudge their masters excessively. But, according to the organization Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers, these dogs are capable of doing even more, such as retrieving treatment specialists and even calling 911. (Now, what they do once on the line is another story.)

Diabetes Care Journal published a study regarding the accuracy of, and the clinical and psychosocial outcomes among, DAD owners. Results showed they’re able to detect blood sugar fluctuations 20-to-45 minutes in advance, and alert highs and lows accurately nearly 92 percent of the time. Diabetes patients in the study also reported an improved quality of life, as well as increased ability to participate in physical activity, which can aid patients in diabetes management.

Approximately five million individuals in the U.S. alone take insulin. And with 17 percent of them suffering from hypoglycemic unawareness, there's an acute demand for these dogs, which means for those interested in obtaining one it won't come cheap. The average DAD costs upwards of $20,000.

Still, the life-saving capacity of these canines is uncanny, and unmatched. Not to mention they also make a pretty great companion, or so it seems.