What Are Diabetic Service Dogs?

Daniel Sher

2022 May 25

6 min read

If you live with diabetes, the consequences of blood sugar fluctuations can be a constant fear. 

Most diabetics use continuous glucose monitors (CGMs) to track their blood sugar levels in order to prevent the side effects associated with hyperglycemia and hypoglycemia. 

But there’s an arguably better option to do so – diabetic service dogs. 

These dogs are trained to detect blood sugar fluctuations, alert their owners, and even take care of them in case of emergencies.

Owning a pet also comes with additional benefits for people with diabetes, including improved mental health and better quality of life. 

Let’s get started.

What Are Diabetic Service Dogs?

what are diabetic service dogs

Diabetic service dogs are dogs that are trained to detect changes in blood sugar levels for individuals with Type 1 diabetes and insulin-dependent type 2 diabetes. 

Diabetic Alert Dogs vs Medical Response Dogs

diabetic alert dogs vs medical response dogs

There are two types of diabetic service dogs – diabetic alert dogs and medical response dogs. 

Alert dogs are trained to recognize high and low levels of blood sugar and alert you of these changes before symptoms take place. The way in which the diabetic alert dog alarms the owner depends on how it was trained. Some examples include staring, touching the owner with its nose, and holding a particular toy.

Medical response dogs can notice blood sugar changes and are trained to respond when dangerous symptoms of low blood sugar arise. This may entail alerting family members, bringing supplies such as food and medication, and dialing emergency numbers using a special device. 

How Are Diabetic Service Dogs Trained?

how are diabetic service dogs trained

Prior to alert and behavior training, dogs first undergo formal training on basic behaviors and socialization. 

Then, they are trained specifically to detect changes in blood sugar. 

It is believed that when blood sugar levels change, chemical changes in breath and saliva take place. Service dogs are trained to detect these changes in a variety of ways. A common training method is to expose the dog to different samples of the owner’s saliva or breath, including samples of episodes of high and low blood sugar. 

They are then rewarded when they show signs that they can detect the specific compounds associated with high blood sugar levels and low blood sugar levels, usually through smell.

The training process also involves teaching the dog how to alert the owner when their blood sugar reaches dangerous levels. Additionally, they are trained to take care of the owner if symptoms of severe hypoglycemia or hyperglycemia take place and alert people such as family members if needed.

Are Diabetic Service Dogs Reliable?

Are diabetic service dogs reliable

According to a study, diabetic alert dogs displayed a median sensitivity of 70% to hypoglycemic and hyperglycemic episodes.

This level of accuracy can vary depending on the quality of initial and ongoing training, as well as dog characteristics such as willingness to try new behavior. 

It’s worth noting that the study above assessed the behavior of alert dogs trained by a specific charity, so results may vary depending on the organization you choose to train your dog.

The best way to ensure reliability is to choose among the training organizations that are legitimate and accredited. We’ll discuss this in more detail later.

For now, let’s go over the benefits of service dogs for diabetics. 

How Can Diabetic Service Dogs Help Their Owners?

how can diabetic service dogs help

Diabetic service dogs can help people with diabetes cope with physical symptoms, provide emotional support, and improve their quality of life. Let’s discuss these benefits in detail.

Physical Benefits

The most significant way diabetic service dogs help their owners is by decreasing the risk of serious complications such as passing out and seizures. And if these consequences do arise, response dogs can ensure you’re taken care of. 

Moreover, research shows that dog ownership by itself is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, which is sometimes experienced alongside diabetes.
 

Psychosocial Outcomes

When it comes to psychosocial outcomes, a study performed by the American Diabetes Association showed that diabetic service dog owners experienced the following benefits:

  • Decreased concerns about blood sugar control
  • Better quality of life
  • Improved ability to participate in physical activities

Emotional Support

Additionally, studies also show that interacting with a pet increases levels of oxytocin, a hormone associated with positive emotions. This, in turn, triggers positive changes in the owner’s mental health, including decreased depression, anxiety, and stress. 

Interestingly, some diabetic service dog training programs teach dogs specific emotional support and wellness skills.

This is relevant for diabetics since they tend to experience mental health problems such as depression more often than non-diabetics.
 

Exercise and Weight Loss

There are also benefits involved in the daily need to walk a dog. The most important one is that it promotes weight loss. This additional support in weight management is valuable for people with diabetes that are interested in shedding extra pounds and experiencing the benefits of doing so.

How to Get a Diabetic Service Dog

If you’re interested in a diabetic service dog, you can contact organizations such as Assistance Dogs International, which can help you find legitimate dog training programs in your area.

These programs often, but not always, offer support in acquiring the dog and training it. 

If you choose such an organization that doesn’t offer acquisition services, or if you already own a dog, it’s important to take into consideration that not all kinds of dogs are suitable for training. 

That’s because there are requirements in terms of smelling ability, temperament, friendliness, intelligence, and other traits.

Moreover, breeds such as poodles, labrador retrievers, and golden retrievers tend to perform better.

How Much Does a Diabetic Service Dog Cost?

There exact cost of a diabetic service dog highly depends on which training program you choose, but it ranges from $8,000 to $20,000. 

Some insurance companies may cover these initial expenses, but this reduced cost often comes with a requirement: pet health insurance. 

Of course, this excludes the monthly costs of maintaining the dog, which can be $150 and above, as well as ongoing training costs. 

Challenges With Diabetic Service Dogs

challenges with diabetic service dogs

If you choose to acquire a dog, it’s crucial to note that it is a lifelong commitment that includes many responsibilities. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Covering initial expenses, as well as those related to veterinary checkups, diseases, and medications
  • Grooming and bathing
  • Taking care of their nutrition
  • Training to prevent behavior such as scratching and chewing objects, as well as potty training
  • Giving them regular exercise

Moreover, service dogs need to undergo regular testing in order to ensure their ability to detect blood sugar fluctuations is still accurate. Additional training might be needed if their performance is not satisfactory.

Conclusion

Diabetic service dogs can help people with diabetes by detecting blood sugar level fluctuations and offering emotional and physical benefits. That being said, it’s important to take into consideration the costs and responsibilities associated with service dogs.

If you have diabetes, the Klinio app can help you incorporate healthier habits so that you can manage your diabetes in a convenient, effective way. 

Written by

Daniel Sher

Daniel is a Cape Town-based Clinical Psychologist. Diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes over 27 years ago, he now has a special interest in working with other diabetics (Type 1 and 2) to help them flourish. Daniel also provides psychotherapy to individuals, treating a wide range of psychiatric conditions. Additionally, Daniel provides neuropsychological assessments for people suffering from brain-based injuries and disorders.

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