We have all seen the news reports showing dogs picking out the cancer cells from a row of petri dishes. It’s not a parlor trick; it’s a growing role for dogs.
Medical alert dogs are trained to detect and respond to a specific medical event. Diabetes alert dogs detect changes in blood sugar. Seizure alert dogs are attuned to the chemical changes that may precede an epileptic or autism-related seizure. And some dogs can sense the arrhythmia that signals a cardiac event. Dogs are then trained to take a positive action – alerting their owner, bringing medication, or pushing a button to call for help.
Astro Kennels’ show trainer Paula Reillihan has a standard poodle that has 11 obedience titles. Skye was 2 ½ years old when Reillihan was diagnosed with diabetes. The two went to a private trainer in Florida. “It took about six months for him to be reliable,” she says. When Skye detects the chemical odor released when her blood sugar drops, he paws her leg persistently.
The same scent receptors that make dogs great hunters, trackers, or search-and-rescue partners also make them particularly well-suited to diabetic alert. Dogs can sense a change in blood sugar a full 20 minutes before a glucose meter.
Houlihan trains service dogs that assist families with autistic children. Not all autistics have seizures, and not all dogs can detect them. “We don’t know which dogs will be tuned into seizures until they happen,” says Houlihan. But once the ability has materialized, trainers can work to develop it. Dogs for Autism cites several situations where families credit their autism assistance dog with preventing possibly life-threatening situations by warning of an impending seizure.
Can your dog do this? Very possibly, if the groundwork of learning has been instilled already.
At Astro Kennels, a large “scent wall” dotted with cubby holes is used in training. The cubbies can be used for any scents from human remains, gunpowder, and narcotics to high blood sugar. Owner Dave Milan cites two key factors to success in medical alert training: being able to isolate and replicate the odor the dog needs to respond to and the willingness of the dog to learn.
Connie Cleveland, owner of Dog Trainers Workshop, adds one more characteristic: the temperament to initiate an activity. Dogs generally respond to commands, but when training a medical alert dog, “I am looking for those dogs that are so engaged in working that they start to try and initiate tasks. That’s the disposition we think might enable a dog to learn to start something themselves rather that respond to the handler,” she says.