How can dogs detect hypos? Meet the PhD student trying to find out
A Canadian student is hoping to deliver scientific evidence that dogs can be trained to detect changes in blood glucose levels.
Catherine Reeve, a PhD student at Dalhousie University, is hoping her study will assist in the training of diabetic service dogs.
Hypo alert dogs are specifically trained to recognise when their owner, or a member of the family that has diabetes, is experiencing a hypo.
They use their strong sense of smell to pick up changes in the smell of breath in humans. Low blood glucose levels can be detected, and the dog can be trained to fetch a hypo kit in response.
While countries all over the world provide this service, including the United Kingdom and Australia, very little scientific research has investigated this training.
Reeve’s study involves her four-year-old dog, Nutella, and hopes that her research will fill gaps where scientific evidence is missing.
“It’s kind of screaming for somebody to do this research and contribute to the literature,” Reeve told CBC News.
Reeve intends to answer two big questions.
The first is whether dogs sniff a general scent associated with blood sugar, or if this is dependent on the owner. The second is how best dogs should be trained – be it in a laboratory, directly with the person they are helping, or using breath samples.
Her study involved first teaching border collie dogs – which are not renowned for their advanced sense of smell – to smell tea. As tea can be easily diluted, this tested the skill of the dogs.
Reeve then collected breath samples from type 1 diabetes patients at IWK Health Centre, Halifax. Low, normal and high blood sugar samples were provided.
She used cotton balls to absorb the breath samples, and placed the samples in three separate tubes. If the dogs can match the cotton balls with the correct tube sample, they are rewarded with a treat.
After repeating the task 39 times, Reeve said: “They will work non-stop, for as long as you want. We force them to have breaks, even if they don’t want the breaks.”
Reeve graduates in a year, and is hoping to have detailed results from her study that could provide valuable scientific knowledge as to how best train hypo alert dogs.
For people with diabetes who are susceptible to hypoglycemia, the findings could be significant. Living alone without a support network can make a diabetes emergency more worrying, and a hypo alert dog could make a big difference.
Has your pet ever helped you take care of your diabetes? Have you, or anybody you know, ever had a hypo alert dog? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Picture credit: Allison Devereaux/CBC
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