New breed of guide dog helps patients with Type 1 diabetes

Dog guides don’t just help people who are visually or hearing impaired. They are also being trained to help people with diabetes. Jennifer Palisoc reports.

TORONTO – Nettle is a sweet golden Labrador with a well-trained nose that’ll help a family manage diabetes in two 11-year-old daughters.

Nettle is not a typical dog. Unlike guide dogs that help the blind, Nettle is graduating into providing an extra set of hands – or rather, paws – to keep twin sisters with Type 1 diabetes healthy and happy.

Since they were diagnosed eight years ago, twin sisters Jade and Brooke have kept track of their blood sugar levels throughout the day, making sure they don’t drop or get too high.

By night, their parents Terry and Beata Bordman check on their daughters before they head to bed at midnight. Then, they take turns waking up around 3 a.m. to monitor their blood sugar levels again.

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A drop to 4.5 mmoL or lower in blood sugar levels can leave the girls unconscious. This is where Nettle comes in – she works throughout the night, and if she senses a problem, she’ll alert their parents.

It’s all in Nettle’s nose.

“It’s a chemical change that happens when a person goes into these lows and so the dog can actually [smell] it,” Erika Ott, trainer for the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides, told Global News.

The dogs are trained using little pots filled with a filter. When patients have low blood sugar levels, they breathe into the pots, then trainers hide the vial on their bodies to help the dogs pick up the scent. The dogs practice identifying the scent, finding the vial and then finding help.

It costs about $25,000 to raise, train and place each guide dog and they’re approved at no cost to qualified applicants. In this case, it’s for clients with Type 1 diabetes with hypoglycemic unawareness, which means they don’t know when their sugars drop.

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They have to be at least 10 years old and they have to have at least three to four lows a week. That way, the guide dog is kept “happily working” and putting its six months of training to use.

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Humans can catch if their blood sugars get too high. It’s a very sweet smell, Ott says. But a canine’s sense of smell is able to pick out the lows that most of us couldn’t detect.

That’s when the guide dog, like Nettle, springs into action. She can alert the girls’ parents and if they aren’t around, she can hit an emergency system. She can even fetch emergency items, their diabetes kit, glucose pills or other medication and even a juice box to help restore blood sugar levels quickly.

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“For a diabetic alert dog, we look for a higher-energy dog because they are working throughout that whole time,” Ott explained.

“So we are looking for a dog that keeps up with that, a dog that is a free thinker. One that’s not waiting for a command,  yet choosing to do the right thing because that’s what it’s been taught.”

For Jade and Brooke, Nettle is a new pet, guardian and family member.

“She fills my heart with love and joy and fills my mind with care,” Jade told Global News.

“I’m very proud of her.”

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