Lisa Mayer, Washington, has been around dogs long enough to know that when one she’s training for Wildrose Kennels in Oxford, Miss., becomes unusually active around a new person, she doesn’t hesitate to ask some personal questions:
Are you a diabetic? Have you checked your blood sugar recently?
Her dogs can smell when a Type 1 diabetic’s blood glucose levels are spiking or falling into dangerous territory. They are called Diabetic Alert Dogs (DAD), and their sense of smell coupled with their training has saved lives, said Mayer, noting a falling glucose level can lead to a seizure, coma, even death.
“(Diabetic Alert Dogs) can pick up on a person’s rising or falling blood sugar, and the idea is, they catch it before it gets into dangerous territory,” Mayer explained, adding that some diabetics can’t feel their highs and lows coming on and so they are extremely vulnerable.
“There are unscientific studies that we have done . . . once clients have the dogs placed in their homes, we ask them to track their blood sugar for a couple of months so we can see some trends. And in almost every case the dogs are anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes ahead of the meter, so they are able to avert a coma or seizure.
“Some of the dogs that we have placed with children can alert when the child is two miles away.”
Mayer can recount several stories about her dogs still in training alerting on strangers having high/low blood sugar events, some at seriously dangerous levels, including one when the person was several rooms away.
“It’s amazing!” she remarked.
Volunteer for Wildrose Kennels
Mayer, who works as an attorney with a private practice in Union, moved to Washington in 1995 from St. Louis.
In her spare time, she works as a volunteer DAD trainer for Wildrose Kennels, which deals exclusively in British and Irish imported Labradors, a breed known for “their amazing scenting ability.”
Up until a few years ago, Wildrose primarily focused on training what it referred to as the “gentleman’s gun dog” for hunting, which is how Mayer became familiar with the kennel. She has an 11-year-old direct English import that she purchased from Wildrose as a fully trained hunting dog.
“I have been training and showing dogs in lots of different disciplines for 25-some years,” said Mayer. “I competed in obedience, agility, conformation . . . ”
She had never heard of DAD until 2009 when Wildrose learned that one of its trained hunting dogs was also helping a Type 1 diabetic manage his glucose levels.
After reading and learning more about DAD, Wildrose decided to offer a training program, which Mayer, who goes to Wildrose Kennels periodically to compete in different field trials and hunting tests with her dog, promptly volunteered for as a puppy raiser/trainer.
She did it in memory of her older brother, who passed away suddenly in 2008 from complications with Type 2 diabetes.
“This opportunity came along and I adore Wildrose Kennels, so I offered my services,” said Mayer. “It’s been a lot of fun, very rewarding.”
She brought home her first puppy in October 2009.
Since then, Mayer has trained six DADs for Wildrose, the most recent of which, Champ, she returned just last week so he could complete his advanced training on site.
He will likely be placed with a diabetic as early as May, said Mayer.
Meanwhile, she returned home with a new puppy, a little, black male, just 15 weeks old, named Mason, “that I’m starting on his journey to being someone’s hero,” Mayer commented.
A Little About the Training
Wildrose Kennel’s DAD program offers clients several options in acquiring one of its dogs or receiving its specialized training. Clients can purchase dogs that have been fully trained already or they can purchase a dog bred by Wildrose and then self-train it, said Mayer, noting Wildrose can help with this too.
For a couple in the St. Charles area who bought a Wildrose dog to train themselves, Mayer took the dog for four weeks to help with training, and the couple also came to an annual training conference that Wildrose offers each May.
People who have a DAD of any breed, not just those purchased through Wildrose, can attend the annual training conference.
Wildrose currently has about 30 Diabetic Alert Dogs placed across the country, said Mayer. An equal number are with adults and small children.
When a DAD is placed with a child — the youngest child to receive a dog was just 9 months old — the dog is really working for the parents, said Mayer, noting children can’t feel or don’t understand the symptoms of rising or falling blood sugar.
“The dog will sleep next to the child, but if something changes with their blood sugar in the middle of the night, the dog will go alert the parents,” she explained.
“The real danger for some Type 1 diabetics is that they become hypoglycemic (low blood glucose level) unaware; they cannot feel their blood sugar dropping.”
The gentleman who has the first DAD Mayer trained had been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes for 30 years, and managed it well, but in 2006, something changed. He could no longer feel symptoms that his blood glucose level was dropping, often suddenly and fast.
“One day he was sitting on his porch, talking to his niece, and the next thing he knew he hit the deck and then the paramedics were there,” said Mayer.
“Since he’s had Drake, since 2010, he hasn’t had one episode.”
Having a DAD alert a diabetic that his or her blood glucose level is off — high or low — results in tighter glycemic control, which decreases the likelihood of long-term complications, like kidney failure, retinopathy, neuropathy and heart disease, the Wildrose brochure notes.
At Wildrose, each litter of puppies that is born, trainers are looking from Day 1 to decide which ones should be trained as “duck” dogs for hunting or as “diabetes” dogs.
“We train duck dogs and diabetic alert dogs the same way,” said Mayer. “When the puppy is two to three days old, the only thing working on him is his nose.
“With diabetic alert dogs, we have low blood sugar scent samples. We wave that in front of the puppy’s nose and then we rub it around where he gets his dinner — if you know what I mean.
“Then we have them follow it . . . we put the scent sample in there with them, and draw it up to mother, and his reward is he gets to nurse, so we’re imprinting that scent.”
The training continues away from the kennel with volunteers like Mayer.
She uses low blood sugar samples that she gets from friends and other volunteers to continue the dogs’ scent training as she introduces them to what she calls the “bringzo,” a soft-stick-like device that attaches with velcro to a belt loop or other easily accessed area.
“Then they learn other behaviors — the high-five, bowing — and eventually . . . we link the three together, so when he smells a low blood sugar, he will grab this (‘bringzo’) and offer a wave or whatever the diabetic wants, and those tricks will become his alert signals,” Mayer explained.
Once a dog has been placed with a client, they become so close that the dog has been known to take its alerting ability beyond its training.
“We don’t necessarily train for it unless the diabetic wants it, but . . . as these dogs get more and more seasoned, if they sense their handler is having a low blood sugar event, they will go get the meter and shove it in their face,” said Mayer. “Some can open the refrigerator and get a juice or go grab peanut butter crackers or something — what we call a “low” snack — and bring it to them.
“These dogs are a tool in diabetes management. They’re not a cure, but it’s just a tool in the arsenal to help the diabetic manage their diabetes.”
They are making a life-saving difference for the Type 1 diabetics with whom they live.
“Every person we have placed a dog with has seen a dramatic drop in their A1C numbers (average blood glucose level over the previous three or four months),” Mayer said.
Foundation Supports Program
Wildrose has a Diabetic Alert Dog Foundation that accepts financial donations that are used to support programs to deliver trained dogs to clients with Type 1 diabetes.
The training that goes into DAD, just as with any service dog, is expensive, said Mayer, so there are charitable organizations that will sponsor a dog almost like a scholarship for a client.
“We also do fund-raisers for the foundation,” Mayer noted.
For more information on Wildrose Kennels and its DAD program, people can visit www.uklabs.com.