Like so many dog owners, Becky Hertz’s bond with her four-and-a-half-year-old Goldcrest Labrador Retriever runs deep. But in her case, it’s a potentially life-saving covenant.
Diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when she was 14 years old, Hertz is the proud (and grateful) owner of Fuji, a hypoglycemia alert dog.
Medical service assistance animals such as guide dogs for the visually impaired, dogs that “hear” for the hearing impaired, or dogs that are trained to retrieve items for those who are wheelchair-bound have been serving their masters for decades, but dogs like Fuji are relatively new to the world of canine service companions. Hypoglycemia alert dogs are trained to sense when blood sugars are reaching an unsafe level in people with insulin-dependent diabetes and respond to their human partner with a specific alerting behavior prior to the onset of a low blood sugar episode.
Although unable to determine exactly how dogs sense low blood sugar, scientists believe they pick up on scents created by the chemical changes that occur in the person’s body using their powerful sense of smell: while humans have five to six million olfactory receptors, a dog has up to 220 million, producing a scenting skill that is a thousand times more sensitive than that of humans.
Becky had served as a puppy raiser for Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) for several Hypoglycemia Alert Dogs Saving Lives One years, so she was aware that many of its dogs and those from Guide Dogs for the Blind were retrained for diabetic alert work by Dogs 4 Diabetics® (D4D) and submitted an application to be put on its waiting list. Once accepted into the program, she says she was unprepared for the intensive, two-week classroom and field training she was required to complete as part of the placement process, despite her experience with medical service dog programs.
“I thought, ‘I’ve puppy raised, so it’s not going to be that hard on me,’ but it was a physical and emotional rollercoaster,” Hertz recalls. “You need to learn the commands that the dogs know, learn about their body language, how to make sure their behavior in public is appropriate and then pass rigorous testing. Gosh, we even had one full day of dog first aid training, because that dog is precious and you have to be able to protect the dog.”
Clients work with a variety of dogs during training to determine the most suitable match, with trainers taking into account the lifestyle, personality and abilities of each client. Matches can occur during or after completion of the training class under a trial placement agreement, and it can take up to a year or more after the dog is placed with a client for the person/dog team to graduate from the program.
Originally paired up in July 2010, Fuji and Becky officially graduated from the program in November 2011. Since then, the partnership has far exceeded expectations.
“She pretty much follows me wherever I go, sleeps next to my bed at night, and alerts me both when I am aware and unaware that my blood sugar has dropped. But what’s really cool is that she will alert me if my blood sugar drops too quickly,” Becky notes.
“Once she alerted me when my blood sugar was a 130, which is a normal range for me,” she adds. “What we’re taught is that if your dog alerts and your blood sugar is in normal or high range, that you need to recheck 10 to 15 minutes later, and if there is a 10 percent or greater drop, then it’s a valid alert. So she can also catch it while it’s dropping and before it gets too low.
” While some alert dogs may be taught to sit and stare at their handler or touch the person with their nose, Becky says D4D trains their dogs to “bringsel.” The bringsel is a small soft tab type of object that hangs off the dog’s collar, and when they alert, they’re supposed to grab their bringsel and hold it in their mouth.
Much to Becky’s amusement, Fuji “doesn’t like her bringsel,” she says. Instead, “she will put her front paws on me when she alerts, which she does at least once a week, if not more.
” Fuji shares the Hertz household with Becky’s husband Reid, son Zach and Cody, her adored eight-year-old pit bull, but it’s evident by talking to Becky that the “constant companion” has carved a special place in her heart.
“The relationship is different that with other pets,” she says. “It’s a symbiotic bond that’s difficult to define. It’s almost like a child in the sense of wanting to protect her and that everything is okay with her, because of the service she provides me. I was very, very fortunate to get her.”
(Editor’s Note: Although Dogs for Diabetics estimates the direct cost associated with breeding, raising and training its service dogs at $25,000, the non-profit organization places its dogs with clients for a minimal cost, currently at $150 for an application fee and training materials. Becky recommends that prospective alert dog owner/handlers exercise caution and do their research when trying to find a legitimate training service. She suggests Assistance Dogs International as a good starting point.) Hypoglycemic alert dogs are trained to sense when blood sugars are reaching an unsafe level in people with insulindependent diabetes.