Butter is a 10-year-old mixed breed canine who has recently learned one special trick: monitoring his diabetic owner’s blood sugar levels.
After being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes last June, Singaporean Stella Chew discovered that she can train her pet to be a diabetic alert dog, reports the Straits Times. While common in other countries such as the United States, such alert dogs are not as popular in Asia.
Through extensive online research, the 37-year-old financial technology consultant was able to put Butter through six months of training wherein she taught the dog to raise the alarm whenever her blood sugar levels fall to a critical low, even at times when she herself fails to notice it.
Most diabetics are unable to produce enough insulin, some are unable to make any insulin at all. Artificially injected insulin frequently overcompensate, making them vulnerable to hypoglycaemia. Such cases are extremely common to Type 1 diabetics.
“You start to tremble or become incoherent, and your body tends to go into panic mode,” Chew explained. “In one episode, it happened when I was sleeping and I was struggling to get up and broke out in a cold sweat.”
Understanding the need of other diabetics like her, Chew is now helping to train dogs of other patients without compensation.
As alert dogs cost around $15,000 to $20,000, Chew helps others save a lot of money by training the patients’ own dogs or assisting them in finding a suitable dog from a shelter. Action For Singapore Dogs, an animal protection organization in Singapore, has provided the much-needed assistance in identifying the right dogs for the patients.
Ideally, the dog must naturally be intelligent, should have a sharp nose and a “natural confidence and sense of responsibility.”
When Butter picks up the scent of someone having low blood sugar levels, the dog immediately alerts whoever has the Low blood sugar by licking or nudging her way ahead of the chronic disease’s symptoms appearance. At times when Chew has deeply fallen asleep, the dog would even nudge her to wake her up to let her know that her blood sugar levels have fallen dangerously low.
Butter’s training would not have been possible without the help of the people Chew found in online forums. During the training, Chew would freeze some of her saliva samples when she was in a hypoglycaemic state. She would then thaw them later for Butter to smell so the dog could get acquainted with the smell.
Caitriona Evans, an Irish national, is among the four people already training under Chew since October.
Evans, whose 13-year-old daughter Caoimhe is suffering from the illness, sought Chew’s help after learning about what she was doing. With the help of ASD, Evans and Chew was able to find the right dog for her daughter.
According to Evans, the dog is now training with Chew and has “progressed tremendously” while learning to pick up the smell of someone having a hypoglycaemic episode.
“With the dog, she’ll be able to live alone – and if it doesn’t work out, the dog will still be part of the family,” Evans said, pertaining to her daughter.
Chew has also founded Dogs for Diabetes Singapore, a group that helps more Diabetic patients train dogs like Butter. According to Chew, Dogs for Diabetes Singapore was set up to “ensure that patients can train reliable, well-behaved dogs that can serve them while being inconspicuous in public.”
In order for service dogs to gain acceptance in public areas, the group is seeking support from local government agencies in Singapore such as Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) and the National Environment Agency (NEA).