Service dogs are nothing new. There are dogs that are trained to alert to seizures or allergies, provide mobility support, work with individuals with hearing or vision difficulties, and much more. Included in this group are diabetic alert dogs who are trained to alert to low or high blood sugars in individuals with diabetes. But how accurate are these animals when detecting changes in blood sugar?
A recent study analyzed data from 27 dogs trained by Medical Detection Dogs, a UK organization, for 4,197 episodes of hyper- or hypoglycemia. They used information and records provided by the individuals paired with each dog as well as training instructors at the organization familiar with each dog-client partnership. Their findings showed a median sensitivity to out-of-range episodes (blood glucose levels that were too low or too high) of 70%; this was further broken down to a median of 83% for hypoglycemic episodes and 67% for hyperglycemic episodes. Overall, the dogs correctly alerted an average of 81% of the time. However, four dogs were accurate for 100% of alerts.
It is important to note that results varied greatly among the dogs, and this could be contributed to many different factors including whether the owner was an adult or child, whether the dog was previously an owner’s pet or selected specifically for training, family size and lifestyle, the nature of the individual’s diabetes and how quickly blood sugar levels change, consistency with rewards and training, and the owner’s attitude toward the dog and confidence in its capabilities.
While owners should not rely solely on diabetic alert dogs to manage blood sugar, these animals can play an important role in improving quality of life. Some dogs are able to alert to decreasing or increasing blood sugar before they reach levels that are considered out of range. In addition, they can be beneficial for those who have decreased awareness of hypoglycemic episodes so that they know to check their glucose levels.
With so many factors that can influence a dog’s performance and abilities, each case is different. Using a diabetic alert dog in conjunction with a CGM or other system can provide more comprehensive support. There are few studies that have been done on the effectiveness and accuracy of medical alert dogs for diabetes, so more research is necessary to obtain a better understanding.
Organizations like the Diabetes Research Connection (DRC) support early career scientists in moving forward with novel research studies for type 1 diabetes by providing critical funding. Without these resources, some scientists may not be able to execute their work. Learn more about current projects and how to help by visiting http://diabetesresearchconnection.org.