The dog that can smell when di­a­bet­ics are at risk


“Izzy” is a 5- year- old Ger­man Shep­herd, a very spe­cial one: he has been trained to smell when his master is about to have a hypo- gly­caemic cri­sis, lose con­scious­ness and slip into a coma. He can sense the cri­sis com­ing 20 min­utes in ad­vance. Day and night, Izzy is alert for im­mi­nent dan­ger: he is a life­sav­ing dog, a guardian an­gel for peo­ple suf­fer­ing from di­a­betes. His sup­port has changed the life of An­gel Fraguada from Geneva, who has suf­fered from Type 1 di­a­betes for the last 14 years. His pan­creas, all of a sud­den, stopped pro­duc­ing in­sulin; which reg­u­lates sugar lev­els in the blood. An­gel is now forced to in­ject him­self with in­sulin ev­ery day, more than once a day. In Switzer­land, 40,000 peo­ple share this fate, in­clud­ing many chil­dren.

Par­tic­u­larly when suf­fer­ers are very young, keep­ing sugar lev­els un­der con­trol can be a marathon for their par­ents, who are forced to wake up var­i­ous times dur­ing the night to avoid dan­ger­ous hypo-gly­caemic crises.

An­gel Fraguada has worked for nu­mer­ous years as an ac­ro­bat in shows such as “Cirque du Soleil.” He strug­gled with man- ag­ing his di­a­betes and hy­po­gly­caemia could catch him at any time. “Many fac­tors in­flu­ence sugar lev­els in the blood; from stress to phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity. It has hap­pened to me that I’ve had to be res­cued by the am­bu­lance,” he ex­plains.

Dur­ing one of these oc­cur­rences, seven years ago, a first aider told him about dogs for di­a­betic peo­ple. An­gel was in the United States at the time, where train­ing pro­grams for such dogs had been in ex­is­tence for many years.

That’s how An­gel started search­ing for a ser­vice dog. He at­tended cour­ses in the States and he is now a trainer of life­sav­ing dogs him­self.

An­gel trained his Ger­man Shep­herd who has warned him of changes in his sugar lev­els, night and day for the last four years, pre­vent­ing dan­ger­ous hypo- gly­caemia as well as dam­ag­ing hy­per- gly­caemia. “I trained Izzy to alert me when sugar leaves a de­ter­mined safety range,” he said, and Izzy of­ten senses the change be­fore it is de­tected by the gly­caemia mea­sur­ing ma­chine. “Some­times he starts bark­ing 20 min­utes be­fore the sugar be­gins to drop or rise alarm­ingly.” This gives An­gel the time to re­bal­ance his blood sugar lev­els, by ei­ther hav­ing some­thing sweet or in­ject­ing in­sulin.

The Dog Senses in Ad­vance the

Changes in Sugar Lev­els

Dogs for di­a­bet­ics are trained to rec­og­nize a spe­cific smell, un­de­tectable by hu­mans, which sig­nals a change in their master’s blood sugar lev­els, pre­lud­ing to a hy­poor hy­per-gly­caemic cri­sis.

Izzy and An­gel have now be­come insep­a­ra­ble. The Ger­man Shep­herd fol­lows him ev­ery­where.

Carol, An­gel’s wife, is happy too, in par­tic­u­lar for the help Izzy pro­vides dur­ing the night time, when hy­po­gly­caemic crises can reach pa­tients as they sleep and lead them to slip into a coma with­out any­one notic­ing. “That’s why Izzy sleeps in our bed­room,” she says.

The Train­ing Could Last

One Year

Not any dog can be­come an “alert­ing friend” and as­sist a di­a­betic per­son. What makes the dif­fer­ence is the sense of smell, the type of dog and, even more im­por­tantly, the feel­ing be­tween the dog and its master. “The dogs must have a very sen­si­tive nose, it takes be­tween 6 and 18 months to train them. But the master must be trained as well, the bond be­tween the two is very im­por­tant: they have to be­come a tight-knit team. My dog, for ex­am­ple, fol­lows me ev­ery­where, even in the plane,” ex­plains An­gel Fraguada.

In Switzer­land An­gel is help­ing a few fam­i­lies with di­a­betic kids and adults to find and train a ser­vice dog, so that they can man­age dan­ger­ous sugar peaks, in par­tic­u­lar dur­ing night hours. Each dog is trained to as­sist a sin­gle and spe­cific di­a­betic master, be­cause it has to de­tect the smells pro­duced by that par­tic­u­lar per­son. It is there­fore a unique bond.

The alert sys­tem is also per­son­al­ized and it is de­cided to­gether with the pa­tient: it be­comes a sort of in­ti­mate lan­guage be­tween the per­son and the dog, who re­acts to the peaks or drops of gly­caemia to keep it within the safe range.

Ev­ery­thing is very per­sonal. “It is a hard job to train a dog for di­a­bet­ics but the re­sults are very pos­i­tive. We should not for­get though that they are not ma­chines and they can be mis­taken,” says An­gel. He ex­plains that there is a big mar­ket for these dogs in the States and buy­ing one that is al­ready trained can cost a lot. An­gel Fraguada eval­u­ates each sit­u­a­tion and is­sues a quote for the train­ing.

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