An American Ninja Warrior Explains the Importance of a Diabetes Alert Dog
Dog, Technology Combine to Monitor Blood Sugars
By now you may have seen the tragic story of Journey, a diabetic alert dog who died of a gunshot wound outside of her family's home.
Diabetic alert dogs like Journey are specially trained to detect high or low levels of blood sugar for kids like Hannah. Journey was Hannah's constant companion for the past three years and news reports say they went "everywhere" together: school church and camp.
"(Hannah) is struggling, but hanging in there," Hannah's mom told ABC news. "She has an amazing support system."
As one of Cook Children's endocrinologists, this story hit me especially hard. I see some amazing kids every day who are coping bravely with diabetes.
The story also reminded me of time I met Kyle Cochran (@KyleCochranANW) who was kind enough to volunteer at Camp Aurora one summer. Cook Children’s diabetes staff strongly support this camp, and many of the children attending are patients at Cook Children’s.
Kyle has lived with diabetes for most of his life and has competed at a very elite level in American Ninja Warrior. He uses both his diabetes service dog, Leeloo, as well as Continuous Glucose Monitoring (CGM) technology to closely track his blood sugars during high intensity training and competitions.
I asked Kyle to share unique perspective.
Why did you decide to get a diabetes alert dog?
Kyle: I decided to get a service dog because during my training I tend to drop really rapidly. I needed to be warned of the drop much sooner to avoid missing training time to treat a low. Leeloo alerts me before I even get low so I can treat the low and never have to pause the workout.
How do you use both Leeloo and CGM together?
Kyle: I love using Leeloo alongside my CGM. She is great at catching highs and lows before they even happen and the CGM is great for letting me see the exact number I’m at.
What advice do you have for a person or family considering a diabetes alert dog?
KyleThe advice I would give to people is to realize the HUGE responsibility it is to have a service dog. It’s kind of like having a child since you bring him/her with you everywhere. You must remember basic things such as ensuring enough food and water, avoiding over-heating, and dog bathroom breaks.
You will be asked questions about them EVERYWHERE you go. Training never ends, You must have more patience than you’ve ever had. I suggest buying the book, "Training Your Diabetic Alert Dog” and read the whole thing before getting a dog.
How do diabetes dogs help?
The high blood sugars and especially low blood sugars are a major concern for people with diabetes and their family. Low blood sugars in particular can lead to loss of consciousness and seizures. Any assistance in avoiding extremes in blood sugar is important and helpful in improving quality of life and keeping blood sugars in target range.
It's believed that the keen sense of smell is the key in blood sugar detection. A research study showed s dogs could sense blood sugar levels in sweat samples.It's possible that diabetes alert dogs (DADs) sense changes in the appearance, heart rate, or breathing associated with changes in a person’s blood sugar.
Technology vs Dog
Continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) technology continues to improve and has the ability to identify low blood sugars correctly in 90 percent or more cases. Given the cost and commitment of a diabetes alert dog, a prime question to be answered is how diabetes alert dogs compare to CGM reliability.
There is surprisingly not much information regarding alert dog reliability. Most of the information is comes from small sample size research surveys or reports. There are wildly differing reports on dog sensitivity to detect hypoglycemia ranging between 22-100 percent in a compilation of reserch studies.
It will be interesting to see if a research study is done to compare head to head dog vs CGM. One of the prime concerns regarding diabetes alert dogs is the quality/consistency of training. In the meantime, I agree with Kyle’s viewpoint. I believe the decision to choose a diabetes alert dog is very personal and needs to be researched before making a huge, expensive commitment.
Finally, I want to dedicate this post to the memory of Sam. My mountain dog buddy.
Get To Know Joel Steelman, M.D.
Dr. Joel Steelman is an endocrinologist at Cook Children's. He grew up a military brat, on the move every three to four years, to a new home, in a different state. Nevertheless, his family roots remained in Texas, where he finished high school and developed a love for writing, working on the school newspaper and yearbook. He attended Texas A&M University both for his undergraduate and medical degrees.