Thanks to man’s best friend, low blood sugar will never be fatal.
In 2013 my son Henry was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Here’s a quick explanation of one of the world’s most common incurable diseases:
Type 1 is an immune disorder that causes the body to attack the pancreas, removing its ability to produce insulin. Insulin is the hormone that lets you turn food into energy. That means type 1 diabetics have to take shots of insulin every time they eat. They have to match the amount of insulin to the food to keep their blood sugar from going too low, which can be fatal.
No, it’s not contagious. No, Henry didn’t get it from eating too much candy. And no, it’ll never go away.
Things have gotten a lot better for type 1 diabetics in the last few decades. Gone are the days of boiling needles on the stove every morning to reuse them the next day and peeing in a cup and sniffing it to test your blood sugar.
Today Henry has an Omnipod wireless pump that drips insulin into his body all day. We have a Dexcom sensor that transmits his blood sugar level to the family’s iPhones. It’s the very best technology available.
But, as every parent knows, sometimes the very best just isn’t enough.
This is Tako Taco. She’s a mutt—we’re a mutt family—and she’s a diabetic alert dog. She’s trained to respond to Henry’s blood sugar in a fascinating way: through smell.
We’ve all heard the factoid about a dog’s nose being eleventy gazillion times more powerful than a human’s, but what does that actually mean? Here’s a pretty cool metaphor that Florida State University researcher James Walker told PBS show “NOVA”:
“If you make the analogy to vision, what you and I can see at a third of a mile, a dog could see more than 3,000 miles away and still see as well.”
Dogs are experts at olfactory processing. They can isolate individual smells from the bouquet of a room with ease. And when a diabetic’s blood sugar goes low, it rapidly alters the unique smell of that person’s sweat and saliva.
When we started talking to Tako Taco’s trainer, Terry Cadle atRiver’s Edge Dog Academy in Texas, he had us get a bunch of cotton mouth swabs. Luckily, we have a friend who’s a dentist and he had a bunch laying around. When Henry’s blood sugar went low, we popped some swabs in his mouth and had him soak them with saliva, then mailed them in a refrigerated box to Texas.
Terry then had Tako smell the swabs and gave her treats when she reacted. Slowly and surely, he taught her to associate the smell of Henry’s low blood sugar with getting excited and getting food. After eight months of training, we were ready to bring her home.
Every day we have her smell the swabs and do alert practice. She also reacts to Henry’s blood sugar when he’s low in real time, and she’s good at it.
He had a sleepover with a fellow diabetic friend, Angus, a few weeks ago and both boys had their blood sugar go low at bedtime.
Tako climbed up onto the air mattress they were sharing and laid between Henry and Angus, refusing to move. It wasn’t until 15 minutes later, when the treatment to bring their sugar up had taken effect, that she got up and went to her own bed.
Alert dog training is relatively new. The most established organization, Dogs4Diabetics, only started their program in 2004. But service animals have already helped hundreds of type 1 diabetics around the world avoid life-threatening situations.
We love the technology we have for Henry. But there’s something really special about having an animal that not only understands your condition but also cares for you deeply.
Who couldn’t use a little more of that?