How to train your Diabetes Alert Dog

Dogs are AMAZING. Their sense of smell is crazy and their love for people and desire to please their person is incredible. I trained Winston, my aussie-doodle (australian shepherd + poodle), to be a diabetes alert dog. A diabetes alert dog is a dog that can detect high and low blood sugars and alert the owner. The most amazing thing about diabetes alert dogs in my opinion? They detect the change in the blood sugar, so they can tell if your blood sugar is going to drop or rise 10-15 minutes earlier than it actually does. Winston is even faster than my Dexcom!

There are training programs out there to send your dog to to get this training done, or organizations where you can get a diabetes alert dog. I don’t know much about these programs, but I’ve heard they’re pretty expensive. This article is about how I trained Winston myself. I’ll be honest, I’ve kind of slacked off on his training lately, so he’s not a perfect alert dog. Deciding to train a dog to detect your blood sugars isn’t just a casual thing. If you want the dog to be reliable, you have to put in the time. Most importantly, you have to be consistent, practicing every day. So here’s my story:

We never planned on having a diabetes alert dog. We actually weren’t even ready for a dog, dog, but when we found Winston, we knew he was our baby. It’s funny, because we actually picked the name Winston before we ever even met him. One night we were at a big, fun sleepover party at our good friend’s house. I was obsessed with their dog, Winston, and was playing with him all night. The next morning my friend said “Why do you keep calling him Winston? ” Me: “Isn’t that his name?” My friend: “Nope, his name is Buster.” So funny! We decided that Winston was an awesome dog’s name, so when we met our Winston, I gasped and said “It’s Winston!” And then he came home with us.

As for him becoming a diabetes alert dog? It all started when we were at basic puppy obedience classes and our homework assignment was to teach the dog to bring something to you. Like your keys, or a cloth, or a toy, or something. I decided to try it with a juice box and he did it! And he loved to practice during training sessions. I joked about making him a diabetes alert dog and then for Christmas Connor got me this book:

This book is the perfect key and outline for how to train a diabetes alert dog. It has step by step instructions with examples and when to move to the next step, etc.

Here’s the gist of how it works:

  • Dogs have amazing noses and can smell the chemicals in your breath that change when your blood sugar is changing (rising or falling).
  • First thing’s first: you need to have basic obedience training down. Like ‘sit’, ‘stay’, ‘wait’, ‘leave it’. We did classes through Petsmart and loved them.
  • Once you have basic obedience down, you teach the dog the commands that you will want him to perform when he detects a low or high blood sugar. For me, I chose for him to “poke” my leg with his nose to let me know my blood sugar was abnormal. Then to “touch” with his paw for a low blood sugar, and to “bow” (to bend/stretch forward) for a high blood sugar. They need to be really good at these before moving forwards.
  • You gather your high and low blood sugar samples. It’s hard to try to train a dog with a high or low blood sugar, so what you do is spit on a cotton ball/swab when your blood sugar is abnormal and put it in an old test strip bottle and store in the freezer to use for training sessions.
  • Next you teach the dog that the “low blood sugar” scent is important. Using a clicker is good for this because it allows the dog to know that he has done something good. Read more about basic clicker training here. Basically, you use the clicker to tell the dog “good job” when his nose wiggles that he smells the low blood sugar scent.
  • Next you teach the dog to do the command that you chose when he recognize the scent. Eventually you drop the verbal command for the action and the scent becomes the trigger. It’s basic Pavlovian conditioning.
  • Practice, practice, practice. Doing short training sessions each day is the most productive.

We now have a juice basket in the living room with low snacks. If I ask Winston for a juice, or if he alerts me and I miss it, he’ll bring it to me. He even brings it out to me when I’m doing yoga out on the back patio or if I’m in the hot tub.

Some more key ideas from the book:

  • Different breeds of dog are better for scent detection. Dogs with long noses vs. smushed/flat noses usually have more scent receptors.
  • Don’t train the dog when your blood sugar is high or low. It can cause scent confusion if he is smelling an abnormal blood sugar on your breath during training.
  • It requires time, patience and repetition.
  • It’s worth it. The feeling I got the first time Winston alerted me about a low blood sugar was incredible. I was so proud of him! And of myself, like all of our hard work had played off.
Sick day. Apparently ketones smell gross, according to Mr. Winston.

On the note of service animals:

If you train your dog to detect low blood sugars, he is a service animal. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, your service animal has rights. People often ask how I got Winston certified. According to the law, certification is not required for a service animal to work for it’s handler. You can read the details here. And you can read some helpful information for service animals in Arizona here. Some key points:

  • Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” -ADA
  • “The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.”
  • “When it is not obvious what service an animal provides, only limited inquiries are allowed. Staff may ask two questions: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability, and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform. Staff cannot ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task. ”

The ADA also describes that service animals are not pets, but are working animals. I had a hard time with this for a long time, because Winston is most definitely my pet. He’s a smart guy, and he knows that when his service vest is on it’s time to work. A friend of mine is having her dog trained as a service animal and it was described to her that in order for the dog to be a great worker, he has to be a worker first. He can have 20 minutes of play time, for example, but the rest of the time, he’s doing his job. This just didn’t feel right to me because I do a lot without Winston. I work 36+ hours a week and don’t take him. I travel and don’t always take him. So it didn’t seem fair to make him only a working dog. Perhaps this is why he isn’t a perfect alert dog. That’s why I call him my “part-time” diabetes alert dog. I don’t take him with me everywhere, but when I’m having a hard time with my sugars or not feeling well, I will keep him around because he can smell a low blood sugar before it happens.

It’s a beautiful thing to have a partner to help you with your diabetes. It’s totally do-able, but it is a lot of work, and you have to decide and define for yourself what kind of animal you want to have.

(I’m also totally the crazy dog mom who made an Instagram account for her pup. If you want to follow Winston on his adventures, you can!)

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