A diabetic service dog rests by their owner.

How Diabetic Service Dogs Save Lives

For the 34 million Americans living with diabetes, blood sugar checks are a way of life. Keeping blood sugar stable can even be a matter of life and death, and common symptoms of low blood sugar include fever, anxiety, slurred speech, seizures, or even coma.

Diabetic alert dogs (also known as “DADs”) can help people with diabetes get ahead of their symptoms and avoid worsening their condition or compromising their safety.

How Can a Diabetic Service Dog Help?

Imagine you’re one of the approximately 10% of Americans living with diabetes. You check your blood sugar between one and ten times a day as per your doctor’s instructions. Your goal is to keep your blood sugar stable by monitoring it, eating healthy, and taking medication as prescribed.

Now imagine your blood sugar starts falling (or rising) to dangerous levels. That’s when your DAD jumps into action. Your diabetic service dog notices the subtle shifts in your scent that indicate a potential problem. The dog paws you and runs to fetch the glucose tablets, juice, or insulin you may need to stabilize your blood sugar before an emergency occurs.

That’s a diabetic alert dog at work. For the roughly 1 in 10 Americans living with diabetes, early detection is critical in preventing medical emergencies.

The Journal of Emergency Medical Services reports that emergency calls are frequent for diabetic patients. Many older diabetic patients can be at risk for cardiovascular disease or other health problems, and diabetes only complicates matters for those already suffering from serious illnesses.

Diabetic Service Dogs Are Specialized

Like seeing-eye dogs, diabetic alert dogs have a distinct purpose. Like all service dogs, they go through extensive training before being matched with a client.

They’re trained to detect specific scents on or coming from a person. Chemicals cause these scents within the body that alert the dog to blood sugar changes, but they’re too subtle to be detected by humans.

Dr. Jamie Whittenburg, DVM, owns Kingsgate Animal Hospital in Lubbock, TX, and is a veterinary writer for SeniorTailWaggers.com. She says, “True diabetic service dogs are fairly rare, as they are a specialized subset of service dogs that qualify for protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The “Diabetic Service Dogs of America” stated that they train about 100 diabetic service dogs per year.”

Other associations train diabetic service dogs too. For example, Dogs 4 Diabetics and Early Alert Canines both train DADs.

Whittenburg also warns that diabetic service dogs aren’t a magic solution for those with diabetes. “It’s important to understand the limitations before making a long-term commitment (for example, this study found that only 3 out of 14 diabetic service dogs performed statistically better than chance). New owners should be committed to continuously training their dogs to make sure there is no regression.”

Will Your DAD Forget to Alert You?

Yes. Dr. Whittenburg says, “Often, a diabetic service dog will stop alerting, and the issue is almost always that the dog has been distracted from its duties by being treated as a pet.”

She cautions that bringing a diabetic service dog into your life is a big commitment. They’ll need food, attention, ongoing training, and veterinary care like any dog. They can be companions, but they aren’t pets.

Questions to Ask Before Getting a Diabetic Service Dog

Those interested a diabetic alert dog should research their association of choice before making a decision. You can ask questions about the effectiveness of the dogs at detecting blood sugar changes and how long the organization has existed.

It’s also worthwhile to speak with others who’ve gotten diabetic service dogs to learn more about their experiences.

By talking with other diabetics who’ve used a DAD, you can get a good idea about what to expect. Adopting a diabetic service dog isn’t something to take lightly. Training a service dog runs around $8,000 – $20,000, though some organizations offer a reduced or free DAD if you qualify.

Check the Reputation

Additionally, you’ll want to find out about the organization’s reputation. Dr. Whittenburg cautions against for-profit organizations and those that offer to train your existing pets as service dogs.

She says, “The most important thing to do before committing to a diabetic service dog is to research the service or company providing the dog and discuss how effective their dogs are at detecting blood sugar changes. Associations have trained diabetic service dogs for years, and legitimate services will provide well-trained and properly socialized dogs.”

Once you decide a diabetic service dog is right for you, there’s a wait time of several months to a year. This means you’ll still need a way to manage your diabetes without a dog.

As you can see, there’s a lot to consider before you invest resources into a diabetic service dog. There’s finding the right organization, considering if you’re ready to bring a service dog into your life, and if it’s the right way to treat your diabetes. However, if you do choose to go the DAD route, it can be very rewarding.

Is a diabetic service dog right for you?