D is for Diabetes. And Dogs.

lady and dog

Fido.  Man’s best friend.  For centuries, dogs have been our companions, best friends and sources of unconditional love.  In 1929, the first formal school for service dogs opened.  Since then, dogs have been aiding humans with disabilities for years.

In 1999, Mark Ruefenacht experienced a hypoglycemic episode.  His dog intentionally roused him awake and he was able to quickly treat it.  This experience inspired him to investigate the idea that there may be yet another utility for service dogs.  Dogs are renowned for their senses of smell and it’s a small leap to think they can smell blood sugar changes.  He facilitated a five-year research project that eventually turned into Dogs 4 Diabetics.  Other service agencies have followed suit and now train dogs for diabetes assistance in addition to other disabilities.

The history of using service dogs with diabetic children is relatively short but it’s wildly effective and popular.

Diabetic children are shackled with the responsibility of tracking their blood sugar, self-administration of insulin and monitoring their diet.  Service dogs constantly monitor blood sugar levels and give kids a little more freedom to just be kids.  The dogs are trained to respond when the child is experiencing a high or a low.  However, dogs are not a substitute for regular blood sugar testing.  They complement a care plan rather than replace it.

In some ways, dogs are better caregivers than we are.  They ask for very little in return and are a solid source of support not prone to mood swings or the everyday stresses of life.  Service dogs provide an excellent distraction for the children during uncomfortable medical visits and give them confidence and self-esteem.

Although most dogs are trainable, there are specific breeds that excel at assisting humans.  Typically, the breeds best suited for service work are Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Border Collies and German Shepherds.

As of 2010, the Americans with Disabilities Act was revised to include service dogs.  Under current law, service dogs are allowed to go anywhere people can go.  The ADA revision does not include dogs who solely provide emotional support.  Service animals must perform duties directly related to the disability in order to qualify.

Service dogs receive several years of training before being placed with a family.  The family must continue training and establish firm boundaries to keep the training intact.  Some dogs wear vests indicating that they’re working dogs and not to approach them.  Having a service dog is not a small undertaking but can provide years of companionship, assistance and comfort to a child coping with diabetes.

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