Hypoglycemia alert dogs are protecting type 1s who have hypo unawareness by warning them when their glucose levels are beginning to go low and helping them to avoid potentially dangerous hypoglycemic episodes. Steve Taylor talks about his experiences prior to receiving his hypoglycemia alert dog, Katie, and how having her now has kept him safe and dramatically improved his quality of life.

By: John Parkinson, Clinical Content Coordinator, DiabetesCare.net  

It was rush hour on a rainy afternoon in suburban Nashville, Tennessee when Steve Taylor, a person with type 1 diabetes, drove his car onto Interstate 65. He was completely lucid and aware of his surroundings navigating his car onto this major highway. Taylor’s five-year old daughter, Jenna, was in the backseat. A few moments later, while on the highway, Taylor began suffering a major hypoglycemic unawareness episode to the point Jenna had to unstrap her seat belt, climb up to the front seat, and reach for a soda, which she gave to her father to drink.

Taylor, in the midst of a mental fog, did not immediately respond to his daughter’s requests to pull over. In fact, they continued down the road for a few more miles on a harrowing ride on the interstate before coming to a stop. Fortunately, no one was hurt. While this incident happened many years ago, Jenna remembers the details vividly, and it provides an example of just how dangerous these episodes can be.

Throughout his life, Taylor (pictured here, with Katie) has suffered scores of hypo unaware episodes at random times, sometimes hurting himself, other times scaring people around him. This greatly affected his quality of life, often leaving his wife, Sandra, on pins and needles as Taylor left the house to go to work or run errands.

One night while watching TV a few years ago, Taylor saw a news report about hypoglycemia alert dogs. He and Sandra decided to see if one of these dogs could help him.

Hypoglycemia alert dogs are the latest in a tradition of utilizing dogs to help with humanistic endeavors. Whether in law enforcement for drug or bomb detection, or for people with type 1 diabetes, a dog’s powerful sense of smell is able to pick up scents people cannot.

Hypoglycemia alert dogs are paired up with type 1s who battle through hypo unawareness. These dogs are then trained to warn the person that he or she has dropping blood sugars levels and that the person needs to respond to the dog’s request for action.  

Since he has received his dog, Katie, about two and half years ago, Taylor has not suffered any dangerous hypo unawareness episodes.

With his successful experience thus far with Katie, DiabetesCare.net wanted to talk with Taylor about his decision to get her, and what life is like for him now.

DiabetesCare.net: What made you decide to get Katie?

I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at 8 years old. As a kid, I ended up in the hospital many times from lows that I could not come out of.

For about the last eight years now, I have been on the pump and that has helped a lot; however, low blood sugars still pop up at the worst times and I do not realize they are happening.This was very uneasy for Sandra; every time I would drive into work I would have to call her to let her know I got there. I just never knew when my blood sugar would go low.

One night we were watching a TV program that had a report about hypoglycemia alert dogs and we decided to check into it. We later found more information about these dogs, and we thought this might be an answer to taking care of my hypo unawareness problem.

DiabetesCare.net: Can you describe the process of securing Katie?

Taylor: We filled out the application and two weeks later we got a call that said we were accepted into the program. We were asked to raise $7,500, not necessarily to pay for the costs of the dog itself, but to help offset the hotel charges to travel to stay and train together with Katie, the supplies needed to train her, and also to pay it forward to recipients who may not be able to afford to get into the program. We had a fundraiser for Katie; we raised about $3,000 for her with that one event.

Almost two years later, I went to Saint Elizabeth, Missouri to begin training with Katie.

Katie had been trained for eight months before I went through the training class with her. She was trained specifically for me. Prior to getting her, I had to do a video profile and my whole family had to answer questions about me. During the screening process, they find out what type of personality you have and they then pair you up with a dog with similar traits. I’m very laid back and easy going and Katie is too. It is a perfect match.

During training we had to learn obedience commands, and Katie was trained to my scent. Katie and I bonded pretty quickly, and she started alerting on me in the training class. It was pretty intense training, and we worked six days a week for three weeks.

We would have in-class instruction in the morning, and in the afternoon, we would go to malls, movie theaters, and churches to simulate the settings of places I would go to at home.

DiabetesCare.net: Can you please tell me about Katie? 

Taylor: She is a black lab mixed with bloodhound. She turned five in December. She might be able to work the next six or seven years before she retires from hypoglycemia alerting. At that time, she will only be my household pet, and I will have to get another dog.

DiabetesCare.net: How is Katie able to sense your hypoglycemia?

Taylor: When your blood sugars get to a certain level, you begin sweating and it gives off a subtle odor that humans cannot smell, but dogs can.

She can also tell by the way I’m acting that something is not right. When Katie alerts me and my blood sugar is below 70, she gets rewarded. She will alert me by pawing or jumping on me. There have been other times where she will come up and sit and stare intently at me so I know something is wrong.

I have had times where I do not react to her or take care of the hypoglycemia, and Katie has gone to Sandra and gotten her attention. Katie is adamant in her vigilance. She doesn’t let me get out of her sight. She is sitting at my feet now, and if I get up right now, she will get up and follow me.

She sleeps in bed with me, so if anything happens in the night she will alert me.

DiabetesCare.net: If you happen to have a hypo unawareness event when you are sleeping how does she alert you?

Taylor: She alerts me mostly the same way she does during the day. I might feel her paw lying on my chest. If she is moving around on the bed, we know something is wrong, because normally she doesn’t move. Once she gets into bed, she stays in that same spot.

Sometimes she will whine if I’m not responsive. There have also been times where my wife, after Katie has tried to alert me, has had to wake me up because I am a heavy sleeper.

DiabetesCare.net: You had mentioned Katie gets a reward if she alerts you and your blood sugar is below 70. What is her reward?

Taylor: Because that scent is also coming from my mouth, I will have her lick my face three different times and each time I will gently breath into her nose, and give her a dog treat.

We also do training games and I have taught her some tricks.

DiabetesCare.net: What is your quality of life like now?

Taylor: I have at least one, but up to, two or three lows a week. For me, my life is 100% better. I’m not as concerned or worried about something happening to me. It is major relief on my family, knowing that Katie is around and she will take care of me regardless of where I am, especially if I am out driving or by myself.

DiabetesCare.net: What would you say to other people with diabetes who are considering a hypoglycemia alert dog?

Taylor: There are several organizations that do this, so research them first to see if one of these dogs will fit your lifestyle. These dogs are attached to you and they are going to be everywhere you go. You have to commit to the training and keep the dog alerting with the reward system.

I have always had outside dogs where you give them rabies shots once a year and that’s it. With Katie, she has to go to the vet every six months and she has to have shots.

In the end, it is great to have a dog watch out for you and keep you out of trouble.

While there are various individual organizations that offer hypoglycemia alert dogs, and can be researched on the Internet, here are two which may give interested parties some information: Canine Partners For Life   and Dogs for Diabetics .