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
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.