Not every dog possesses the qualities necessary for success as a service animal for diabetics. The rigorous training programs used to prepare canines for this lifesaving work identify and prepare dogs that will aptly fill the role of alerting diabetics when medical attention is needed.
Dogs from the Labrador and golden retriever breeds are most commonly found working as service animals, according to the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners. It's because those breeds are characterized by an overwhelming desire to seek out, develop and maintain strong bonds with human companions. This is a huge plus for a dog destined to have a diabetic person depend on his willingness to focus on the relationship with a human. Other dog breeds showing some promise to work as assistance dogs include Samoyeds and two types of collies -- the smooth coated and the rough coated. German and Australian shepherd dogs also have some potential due to their strong herd mentality, but they must not be prone to nipping when trying to alert diabetics.
When a diabetic experiences a drop in blood insulin levels, a specific scent is released through the biochemical changes in their body that is easily detected by a dog's keen sense of smell. This is particularly true of Labradors, which have more than 200,000 specific smell sensors that detect scent elements in parts per trillion, according to the Dogs4Diabetics website. Dogs training to assist diabetics are exposed to the scent on the breath of someone experiencing changes in their blood insulin. The dogs are then taught to react to that scent by first staring at the person and then jumping on them gently if the first tactic does not engage the diabetic individual. Another way dogs are trained to alert is by grabbing at a toy that hangs from their collar when they sense the scent of insulin change.
Diabetic alert dogs must also display exceptional public behavior. This puts the dog in the place of having other human beings as the judge of what is good and what is bad behavior. A working dog is trained to ignore the friendly advances of other humans. He is not supposed to engage other human beings as other dogs might do by being petted by other people or seeking the attention of other people. Diabetic alert dogs are trained not to bark at other people, other dogs or activities around them unless doing so is to warn their human companion of danger.
Daytime First, Night Second
Diabetic service dogs must first master the nuances of alerting their human companion during the daytime before beginning to train for night work when diabetic patients are sleeping. According to Milard Roper, a certified trainer for diabetic alert dogs based in New York City, a dog can start training to wake up diabetics once he reaches a 90 percent success rate detecting and alerting diabetic patients during awake hours when and if their insulin levels drop to life-threatening levels.
Amy M. Armstrong is a former community news journalist with more than 15 years of experience writing features and covering school districts. She has received more than 40 awards for excellence in journalism and photography. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in communications from Washington State University. Armstrong grew up on a dairy farm in western Washington and wrote agricultural news while in college.