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Medical-Alert Assistance Dogs Help Diabetics Live Happier, Healthier Lives

| Published on February 7, 2015

More than five million Americans take insulin for the treatment of diabetes. For these millions, failure to maintain proper blood sugar levels can lead to hypoglycemia that can result in a range of serious complications such as loss of consciousness, coma and even death.

It can leave people feeling as though they are helpless, unable to do even the simplest things that other people take for granted, like playing sports or going for a hike.

Four-Legged Help

Dogs4Diabetics (D4D) is a non-profit organization that trains dogs to use their incredible sense of smell to detect the subtle scent that hypoglycemia creates. They can then warn their diabetic handler of this chemical change in their body before it can be registered by any existing technology. This life-saving warning allows diabetics to treat the condition before they become symptomatic.

“Individuals especially at risk of hypoglycemia are children who have a hard time identifying and communicating low blood sugar levels and long-time diabetics who can develop “hypoglycemia unawareness”,” says Ralph Hendrix, Director for Dogs4Diabetics. “These diabetics are unable to tell when their blood sugar is dropping to dangerous levels. These are the types of clients who can be greatly benefited from these medical-alert assistance dogs.”

Diabetic alert dogs give their owns a freedom and security they never thought possible. Image source: Dogs4Diabetics
Diabetic alert dogs give their owns a freedom and security they never thought possible. Image source: Dogs4Diabetics

“The positive impact of these dogs include protection from the short term serious risk of hypoglycemia and improved blood sugar management, which helps our clients avoid the long-term risks associated with diabetes, such as blindness or amputation, as well as improved mental and emotional health.”

Kyle Cochran, finalist on NBC’s American Ninja Warrior, has a diabetic service dog, Leeloo, that helps him train. She gave Kyle the ability to go after his dreams without fear. (Leeloo was not trained by D4D).

Not only do D4D’s medical-alert assistance dogs aid their diabetic handler in improving their quality of life as individuals, but they also directly impact diabetics’ families, who bear a large burden in supporting the diabetics in managing the risks of their disease. Parents with diabetic children are comforted by the support of their medical-alert dog in numerous situations such as providing a support system for children when they are away from home. Additionally the friendly reminder of a dog to check your blood sugar is often easier to accept than the perceived nagging of a parent, spouse or friend.


Christy Gillham, Director of Development, explains the extensive process a dog goes through before becoming a diabetic service dog:

Dogs4Diabetics has developed extensive scent training protocols based on quality assurance process and standards used in forensic and science-based programs that require the highest level of scent discrimination capabilities.  The entire scent training process from initial introduction, through the many stages of expanded discrimination process, takes 4 to 6 months.  Each training phase is recorded and must achieve an 80% reliability factor before moving forward.
After the basic training, which proves the dog’s capability to identify the scent of hypoglycemia from other attractive scents, the training moves to placement with a diabetic handler, which will take another 2 to 3 months to achieve the required standard before graduation from our program.  The handler, who has already received 130 hours of classroom and field training, will record every low blood sugar and alert in an excel spreadsheet that is than evaluated by our training staff and the client is coached on how to deal with missed lows, false alerts to achieve the required 80% standard.

D4D believes that this level intense training and support is appropriate to safeguard the lives of our clients.  Anything less does not achieve a standard of performance that is statistically sound and reliable.  We provide the dog, all our training for the dog and client, as well as lifetime support, at no cost to our clients.  D4D is recognized as the first program in the world to be accredited by Assistance Dogs International to perform this groundbreaking work.

Costs Involved

D4D’s mission is to train, and place medical-alert assistance dogs to support insulin-dependent diabetics avoid the acute risks associated with hypoglycemia. Its mission includes the training and support services required for the working life of the dog.

“D4D provides the dogs, the training and all follow-up services at no cost to our clients,” added Hendrix. “As you might imagine, all of this does not come cheap. We estimate the direct cost with associated breeding, raising and training these dogs at $25,000 and that does not include the costs for the on-going support services we provide to clients.”

How You Can Help

Dogs4Diabetics is dependent on a volunteer staff of 100 individuals including professional trainers for its dogs; foster families to house the dogs through the six month training program; medical professionals to assist in the selection, training and support of our clients; as well as volunteers with skills in marketing, accounting, legal services and all other areas to raise money and deliver services to fulfill their business goals. All of D4D’s remaining expenses must be covered by donations.

“There is a great demand for our medical alert dogs,” says Hendrix. “Funding this venture is an ongoing struggle and limits the number of dogs that we can supply to clients. The ultimate objective is to improve our client’s physical, mental and emotional health through the use of an assistance dog. We join the diabetic community in hoping for a cure of this disease; however, D4D’s sole purpose is to support diabetics, 24 hours a day – 7 days a week, in order to improve their lives today!”

To for information on how to donate to Dogs4Diabetics please visit their website.


About the Author

Based in Wilsonville, Ore., animal lover Kristina N. Lotz is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA) and works as a full time trainer. She is the founder of A Fairytail House, a unique all-positive all-sport dog training facility that helps rescue dogs in her area and provides free seminars and training classes for the community. In her spare time, she trains and competes in herding, agility, obedience, rally, and conformation with her Shetland Sheepdogs. She smartly married a Veterinary Technician, who helps keep the fur kids happy and healthy, and provides a quick resource for articles.

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