Dogs are capable of many absolutely wonderful things! I am constantly amazed at the capability of our four legged friends. The more time I spend training Diabetes Alert Dogs (DAD's), and getting to know the public who are inquiring about them, the more I realize that there are many misunderstandings floating around about what they are and how they work. It inspired to write down a couple of the myths about DAD's that I've heard, as well as the reality of the situation. Here are 10 of the most common myths that I've heard (so far) about Diabetes Alert Dogs.
1.) DAD's are 100% accurate and never miss any lows/highs.
Truth: Diabetes Alert Dogs are not machines. They are living, breathing creatures and just like us, they need down time. A well trained DAD can reach incredibly high levels of accuracy, but those dogs still miss alerts now and again. A DAD still needs some time each and every day to sleep, recuperate, and prepare for another "shift" of being on guard against rapidly changing blood glucose numbers. No dog, even an extremely well trained and accurate one, can be alert 24/7.
2.) With a DAD you don't have to check your blood sugar quite as often.
Truth: This one makes me laugh! It's quite the contrary; if you have a DAD, you will be checking even more than you were before. Try double the daily amount! A DAD will alert you any time your blood sugar is rapidly changing, which means, they'll be catching out of range numbers you normally wouldn't feel on your own. When I am training a DAD, I check my blood sugar an average of 10-14 times a day.
3.) Each DAD can only have one person with diabetes as it's partner.
Truth: DAD's can have multiple people with diabetes living in the home that they alert too. Not every dog is capable of this however, as some dogs are more comfortable reporting to multiple people. Some dogs are uncomfortable working with more than one person, and would much rather have their one handler and that be it.
4.) People with a DAD don't take care of themselves or control their blood sugar; that's why they need a dog.
Truth: This couldn't be any farther from the truth! Type 1 Diabetes is an unpredictable, metabolic, auto-immune DISEASE! Because of the nature of the disease, even with impeccable monitoring, blood sugar levels fluctuate beyond the person's control. Telling a diabetic to get control of their numbers is the same as telling someone with severe depression that it's all in their head and they should just get over it. To a person with diabetes a DAD is like a gps to someone driving around in a foreign country. Yeah, sure, you'd still get to where you're going with a plain old map, but, with a gps you can avoid traffic, take faster, easier routes and overall stress less. DAD's help people with diabetes know what's happening in their body before its gets to bad levels. DAD's can be lifesavers to people with Hypoglycemic Unawareness (people who do not feel their extreme lows/highs anymore) and can alert their guardian before their blood sugar has dipped into coma, and even death, inducing levels. The ideal candidate for a DAD is someone who is trying extremely hard to have their numbers in control, but can't seem to get a handle on it for one reason or another. Many diabetics purposely run their blood sugars a bit higher than they should for fear that their number will dip too low while they are sleeping and they will die because they slept through it. People who do not check their blood sugar often because they don't care, or those who already have excellent control of their blood sugar, although would still be able to utilize a DAD, would not get as much benefit from one.
5.) A DAD will cure my Diabetes.
Truth: You'd be surprised how many times I've heard this one. DAD's are a management tool not a cure. They can be utilized as the only tool, or in conjunction with other things such as a Continuous Glucose Monitor (CGM) to help the person with diabetes keep as good control as possible. Everyone has to figure out what methods work for them, and having a DAD isn't for everyone. A DAD is just another layer of protection against out of range blood sugars.
6.) The trainer who trains my DAD will do all the work.
Truth: Any DAD trainer worth their salt will do much of the work, and should be able to get your dog started, however, a lot of work falls to the guardian as well in order to have a well rounded, effectively alerting DAD. Throughout the dog's life, the guardian will need to maintain the dog's alerting by having good timing with rewards, never punishing the dog for offering alerting behaviors, and fostering the proper environment in order for each dog to feel comfortable alerting. Each dog is an individual and there are varying levels of care needed in order to make the situation work.
7.) Shelter dogs can't be trained as DAD's because of their unknown background.
Truth: Although background and early life experiences play a huge part in the development of a reliable DAD, it is not impossible for a dog from the shelter to be trained as a well functioning DAD. Temperament, not just the breed, is a ginormous factor in the selection of a service dog, and it all depends on what the guardian is wanting to train the dog for. Different temperaments, sizes, personalities and breeds appeal to different types of people, and if one is willing to put in the work, a shelter dog can most certainly be properly trained for service dog work.
8.) DAD's are so expensive; they're not worth the money some companies charge.
Truth: Depending on how much proper training the dog has had, they most certainly ARE worth the money. What price are you willing to put on your life as a diabetic? A well trained DAD saves the life of their diabetic partner on a daily basis. Training a DAD is a specialized skill, and not everyone can easily do it which is why trainers have to charge for their highly valuable time. It's certainly understandable that most people would not be able to plunk down up to $50,000 for a highly trained DAD. Many people decide to self-train their own DAD as a more affordable option; but keep in mind it is difficult to do all the work yourself and it may not be possible without the help of a professional DAD trainer. Budgeting for consultations from a professional would be well worth your while if you are wanting to train your service dog.
9.) DAD's under 6 months old cannot be reliable at alerting.
Truth: Again, it all depends on the training involved. A dog 6 months old could very well have a good understanding of how to alert but still need brush up work on public access, or other service dog tasks. It just all depends on the situation, training, and each dog's learning curve.
10.) Scent Imprinting is vital to training a reliable DAD.
Truth: A dog does not have to be Scent Imprinted in order for it to be trained as a Diabetes Alert Dog. In this case, it is certainly possible for an "old dog to learn new tricks." A dog that is fully mature can be trained to detect the biochemical scent a diabetic emits during an out of range blood sugar. Many companies/organizations who breed their own candidates will, however, scent imprint their puppies in order to maximize the dog's chance of becoming a properly functioning DAD.