Diabetic Alert Dogs: Picking up the scent

Seth Pilkington pets his dog Ditto at the Layton City offices.
NICK SHORT/Standard-Examiner
Story by Amy K. Stewart
(Standard-Examiner correspondent)
Mon, Jan 21, 2013
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When Seth Pilkington, 29, of Clinton, was diagnosed with diabetes, he decided he wouldn’t stop running marathons or let the disease take over his life. Now Pilkington not only has a running partner, but also a best friend who helps him keep his blood sugar levels on track.

Pilkington is one of several people in Northern Utah who own a diabetic alert dog.

The canines are trained to detect the owner’s scent; if the person’s blood sugar becomes too high or too low, the dog has a specific action to alert the owner. This “alert” can be anything from bringing the owner a certain dog toy to making signals such as pawing or nudging to get the owner’s attention.

Pilkington’s yellow lab, Ditto, is a high-energy dog and needs a lot of exercise — which is just what Pilkington was looking for. “Ditto is a perfect match,” he said. “He’s my diabetic alert and my training partner.”

Pilkington is the treasurer for the city of Layton. Since Ditto is a service dog, he is allowed to go to work with Pilkington and lie on a pad by his desk.

Many of the diabetic alert dog owners in the Utah area obtained their dogs as puppies from KC Owens, 47, of Salt Lake City. She runs an organization called Tattle Tail Scent Dogs, dedicated to training pups and matching service dogs with diabetics.

Owens, who is diabetic, discovered the potential for diabetic alert dogs after her family pet began alerting her regarding her blood sugar levels.

Owens has been raising scent-imprinted puppies for almost two years now. Most of the trained dogs can alert an owner 30 minutes before a blood glucose monitor would show a dip or rise in the person’s blood sugar, she said.

“A dog is beating science hands-down,” Owens said.

Some companies charge $8,000 to $20,000 for a trained diabetic alert dog. Owens believes it is a better service to charge much less and do some basic training or “imprinting” of the puppies, then turn the dog over to the owner for further training.

“I believe self-training is the way to go, starting with a good-quality pup,” she said.

Scent imprint

The puppies are imprinted with the diabetic scent by letting them smell a person’s high and low blood sugar levels and giving them a treat. They can go to their new home with an early understanding of the scent and with a raw alert action. “The scent part of it is fairly easy,” Owens said. “The obedience part is more difficult.”

A puppy, at about 7 weeks, will have a beginning alert signal such as licking or nipping the owner. This can be converted into other more mature alerts, such as bowing or raising a paw.

Lisa Gleed, 38, of Preston, Idaho, obtained her black lab, Addi, in July 2012, for her son Austin, 7, who was diagnosed with diabetes two years ago. Addi’s alert signals include a nervous licking and pawing at her owner and also a nudging and getting close to Austin.

“She is another set of eyes for us,” Gleed said. “We’ve had her only a short amount of time, but she is part of our family now.”

Owens frequently works with dog trainer Robert Read, 46 of Farr West. Read has been training dogs for hunting, obedience and agility for years. His interest recently branched out to include canines trained to alert for diabetes, seizures and even allergies.

“Just figure out what you want them to do and they thrive on it,” Read said. “Dogs just have a keen sense.”

Sugar levels

Once alerted by his/her service dog, the diabetic owner can adjust blood sugar.

High blood sugar can occur when the sugar or glucose level in the blood rises above normal. This can be caused by eating too many calories or sugar, missing insulin or experiencing stress. Low blood sugar is when the sugar or glucose level in the blood is below normal. This can be from eating too little, exercising more than usual or having too much insulin.

Depending on diabetes type, the person can generally raise low blood sugar by drinking juice, consuming sugar or eating food. The person can decrease a high blood sugar by taking insulin, and adjusting diet to exclude sugar and carbohydrates, exercising more and lowering stress levels.

With Type 1 diabetes, the person makes little to no insulin; Type 2 diabetes is when the person is resistant to the insulin produced by the body.

High and low

Charity Reed, 33, who lives on Hill Air Force Base, got her chocolate lab Barrett in March 2011. The dog is for Reed’s son, Asher, 9, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 3.

Reed trained Barrett by giving the dog a treat, such as bacon, when Asher’s blood sugar was high or low. A person actually emits a sweet smell when blood sugar is high and an acetone smell when blood sugar is low. Still a puppy, Barrett has been tricked by the sweet smell of candy and has given out a false alert signal.

Barrett will lie down if Asher’s blood sugar is high; she will sit and wave a paw if his blood sugar is low. Barrett is trained to alert when Asher’s blood sugar falls to 100 or rises to between 180 and 200, Reed said.

The blood glucose target range for diabetics should be 70 to 130 milligrams/deciliter before meals, and less than 180 mg/dL after meals, according to the American Diabetes Association.

“Barrett has saved my son on several occasions when I wouldn’t have known Asher’s blood sugar was dropping,” Reed said.

Low blood sugar, when let go, can result in seizures and even a coma, and kidney failure. High blood sugar is dangerous in that it can cause health problems, especially in the heart, circulatory system and kidneys, Reed said.

“Diabetics want to keep their blood sugar levels in a healthy range so as to have a long and healthy life,” Reed said. “And if you have a little buddy to help you with that, all the better.”

Barrett goes to school with Asher for an hour or so per day; the time will increase as she matures. “She is a real blessing and has enabled us to live life more fully,” Reed said.

Best friends

Pilkington was attending Weber State University and was involved in long-distance running when, in October 2009, he had to drop out of the Chicago Marathon due to health problems. “My training went downhill and I was feeling sick and I wasn’t sure what was going on,” he said.

Pilkington was diagnosed with diabetes at age 27, in March 2010. No one in his family has diabetes, and, since the disease is genetic, the onset took Pilkington by surprise. “I’ve really struggled to deal with it and to keep my blood sugar at a healthy range and still run competitively,” he said.

Pilkington got Ditto in July 2011. For his alert signal, Ditto is trained to fetch a dog toy called a bringsel; it looks much like a stuffed piece of fire hose. Pilkington said his dog generally alerts him of his blood sugar levels several times a day. “He’s been a real help to me,” Pilkington said, adding if his blood sugar gets too low, he starts to feel dizzy, shaky and can’t think clearly.

Like many people, sometimes Pilkington simply wants to get through a task and doesn’t want to stop to eat.

Recently, he was reading his son a goodnight story and kept ignoring Ditto’s alerts. Finally, Ditto jumped up on his son’s bed and stared into Pilkington’s face until he took action.

Many times, the diabetic alert dogs will wake up a sleeping owner who doesn’t realize their blood sugar is too high or low.

Said Gleed: “Addi has saved my son’s life several times now.”

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