Diabetic alert dogs meet their owners for the first time, start bonding process

Diabetic alert dogs meet their owners for the first time, start bonding process

OAKVILLE, Ont. — Just minutes after Carrie Lemay met her new dog, Freckles, she says the black lab starting frantically pawing and jumping up on her.

Freckles wasn't being disobedient — she is a diabetic alert dog, trained to detect low blood sugar in people like Lemay, who has Type 1 diabetes.

After being "alerted," Lemay then tested and confirmed she was "low," something that can be life-threatening for diabetics.

"When your blood sugar drops it drops fast," the 43-year-old says. "You don't know where you are or what to do, so your mind is kind of off in another world, so (having the dog) will really help."

On Wednesday, Freckles and five other diabetic alert dogs were introduced to their new owners at the Dog Guides Canada facility in Oakville, Ont.

Lucy Harbach, the acting head trainer for the program, says research is ongoing into how the dogs' detection abilities work, but says it involves a chemical change to the blood of a diabetic person. During training, which can take over a year, dogs are selected for their good noses and for being strongly motivated by treats, which are given for a successful alert.

Training one diabetic alert dog costs around $25,000, which is covered by the Lions Foundation, the charity behind this and several other service dog programs.

Since the program began in 2013, Dog Guides says it has trained 57 people to work with diabetic alert dogs. The clients all have Type-1 diabetes with hypoglycemia unawareness, which Harbach explains is a lack of symptoms associated with falling blood sugar.

Lemay, who lives in Vernon, B.C., came to Oakville with her 12-year-old daughter Charleigh. Like the other diabetic clients she will stay for nearly three weeks to bond with the dog before returning home.

Lemay says until now, Charleigh has been tasked with checking on her at night. The Grade 6 student says on three occasions she has found her mom unresponsive and had to provide potentially life-saving injections of a medication that raises blood sugar levels.

"I think it's going to give me peace of mind at night time because ... the dog will be able to pick up on the lows faster than Charleigh," Lemay says, adding her daughter will be able to sleep better too.

Down the hall, 11-year-old Abigail Neill, giggles as she struggles to control her new alert dog, Icelyn, who occasionally overwhelms the Burlington, Ont., girl with licks and nuzzles.

Abigail's excitement at getting her first dog is palpable. "At first it's like 'oh my gosh, is this happening? Is this a dream?'"

Within an hour of meeting Icelyn, Abigail had already been alerted to having low blood sugar, which she confirmed with a test before sipping on a juice box.

Come January, Abigail says, Icelyn will even accompany her to her school, which has made a special accommodation for the alert dog.

Harbach, the trainer, says the dogs provide more than just blood-sugar detection for people with diabetes. She says the dogs, with their official red Dog Guide vests, can help signal the condition to others if something goes wrong, and adds they provide emotional support to people dealing with a lifelong condition.

Harbach says an alert dog is essentially "one more tool," to help manage diabetes, "but, it's a very fun, fluffy one."

Ben Singer, The Canadian Press