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Is Diabetes Awareness Going to the Dogs?

By Kathy Hubbard
She didn’t know it, but Pepper, the dachshund/Labrador mix knew that Megan’s blood sugar level was extremely low. He woke her up by poking, pushing and licking her. She awoke feeling dizzy and hungry. Megan has type 1 diabetes. The dog probably saved her life.
There are hundreds of these types of stories on the internet. I found this one on WebMD, one of my favorites for accurate information. A patient of Audrey Buck, registered dietician and diabetes educator at Bonner General Health, told a similar story of his experience with his dog, and it prompted next week’s topic at the Diabetes Support and Education Group Meeting.
Held at the Brown House (just north of the hospital) at 10 a.m. on Monday, March 7, Glenna Hendrix from Pend Oreille Pet Lodge, will speak about her experience training therapy dogs and how they can be used effectively for people with diabetes. This is a fascinating subject and everyone who is interested is welcome to attend.
Normal symptoms of low blood sugar include sweating, shaking or confusion. At very low levels a person may suffer seizures or go into a coma. The same heightened sense of smell that make dogs great hunters makes them great students for sniffing out a person in crisis. Factoid: A dog has more than 225 million scent receptors in its nose, we have 5 million.
“Professional trainers have learned to harness these skills by training dogs to recognize certain smells. These could include the fruity smelling ketones a person’s body produces when they are experiencing a hyperglycemic episode when blood sugar is too high, or the unique scent a person gives off during a hypoglycemic episode when blood sugar is too low,” an article in healthline.com says.
Hendrix helps people train their dogs to be alert dogs. Besides diabetes training, dogs can be trained to sense seizures, assist people with balance problems and other conditions.
So, is your Fido trainable? Possibly. Hendrix said that all breeds are candidates, but it’s the dog’s temperament that determines whether or not they will make good alert dogs.
Healthline’s article says that dogs may be trained to hold a particular toy in their mouth as a signal to a high or low blood sugar episode. Or it may jump on, sit and stare at, or poke its nose on its owner. Dogs can also be trained to alert another family member, bring needed objects such as medications and retrieving a cell phone for assistance. They also say that a dog can be trained to dial 911 using a special device. I want to see that one! “There are lots of benefits of an alert dog, but, it won’t replace test strips,” Hendrix said. “A dog will help someone keep to their schedule and sense changes more quickly. A properly trained dog will detect a drop or spike in blood sugar before it’s an emergency. Think of the dog as an early warning system.”
Hendrix can help families choose the right animal, or assess a current pet. She said that a therapy dog that will go everywhere with its owner needs to be “essentially invisible.”
“It will have perfect manners in public, be able to sit under a chair while its owner is eating and be on constant duty,” Hendrix said. She said that it’s always good if the dog likes his job, and that it’s okay for the dog to be friendly, but it’s important that the dog stay on task.
As an added benefit, a therapy dog can be an exercise motivator. Dogs need to go for a walk. A 30 to 45 minute brisk walk will benefit the dog, and can help you lose weight at best, or prevent weight gain at least. Plus, studies have shown that owning a pet can help reduce stress and symptoms of depression.
Come meet Hendrix next Monday for lots more information about therapy dogs. She’ll be bringing hand-outs for you to take home and a couple of dogs for a “show and tell” demonstration.
Kathy Hubbard is a member of Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at 264-4029 or kathyleehubbard@yahoo.com.

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