• Winston the whippet raises the alarm to his owner, Kaylene, when her blood sugar is about to crash. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Diabetes-alert dogs can raise the alarm to their owners if they're having an attack of low blood sugar, potentially saving their lives. They can be expensive to train – but a new device may enable any diabetic person to train their pet themselves.
By
Mark White

22 Dec 2015 - 9:44 AM  UPDATED 30 Dec 2015 - 10:07 AM

Perth woman Kaylene Burnell's blood sugar can crash so suddenly she's in imminent danger, but her whippet Winston raises the alarm with a range of behaviours including whimpering, pawing and sitting and staring at her. Burnell has had the seven-year-old dog since he was a puppy. Winston raised the alert as soon as he departed the plane from NSW, where he was born, saving her life.

She received the dog via Paws 4 Diabetics (PFD), the non-profit charitable organisation of which she's secretary. In its 10-year existence, PFD has trained and paired 100 diabetic alert dogs - from chihuahuas to rottweilers - which are used as a complement to regular blood self-testing. 

Such dogs can cost thousands of dollars. But a project at Melbourne's La Trobe University (LTU) is developing a watch-sized device that allows any diabetic to train their pet dog themselves, as part of a world-first scientifically validated training protocol.

Lead researcher Dr Tiffani Howell says there is little “rigorous research” behind diabetes-alert dogs. “No one knows what the dogs are smelling,” she says.

One of the few studies was published in 2013 in the UK. It reported trained dogs gave “significant improvements” to owner well-being – and eight out of 10 of the animals observed consistently alerted them when their blood sugar was outside target range.

Melbourne's La Trobe University is developing a watch-sized device that allows any diabetic to train their pet dog themselves, as part of a world-first scientifically validated training protocol.

Common behaviour included licking, jumping up and staring. One dog would bring a testing kit to their owner's bed if an attack happened at night.

But eight out of 10 means that two weren't consistent – and a diabetic attack can be life-threatening.

The plan is for the LTU device to hold a sample of the person's breath taken at low blood sugar level under medical supervision, which will be released at random intervals. A message will be sent to the owner's smartphone, minutes later, who can treat their pet if they've raised the alarm.

Howell says this enabled training to take place safely. “If the owner's having a low blood sugar episode, they may be disoriented and not really capable of remembering they need to give their dog treats … the dog has more opportunity to be rewarded for their behaviour.”

Also, because the owner doesn't know the sample is being released, they can't influence the dog's reaction – something known as cueing.

“I had to try so hard not give out any indicators,” says Deb Smith, from the Dandenong Ranges, Victoria, who took part in the first, positive phase of tests this year with her Jack Russell terrier, Milly, alongside 12 other owners and their dogs.

She opened a container every day, which sometimes held myrrh, and recorded how long it took Milly to respond – to see if she could be trained to detect a scent.

Though Smith is type-1 diabetic, Milly doesn't pick up on hypo episodes. “Having an alert dog would be extremely useful,” she said.

A trial to see if the dogs can be trained to respond to sweat samples released from the device is planned for July 2016. If that is positive, then Howell hopes to test the device with diabetic dog owners in early 2017.

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