Dogs4Diabetics: A Companion in Health
If you read the April 2012 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine, you may have seen Dogs4Diabetics featured as one of the “Top Dogs” by Dr. Oz. Dogs4Diabetics (D4D) is leading the pack of organizations with trained dogs that contribute to their owner’s blood sugar management.
Today, Executive Director for Dogs4Diabetics, Susan Millhollon, who has been living with type 1 diabetes for over forty years, talks about the founding and future of this unique non-profit. I’m impressed by the work Susan and her small team are doing and I’m sure you will be too.
Q: What is Dogs4Diabetics and how was it started?
A: The start goes back to 1999 when D4D Founder and President, Mark Ruefenacht, was very involved with Guide Dogs for the Blind due to a family history of visual impairment. Mark, who has type 1 diabetes, was on a business trip to New York and was awoken in the middle of the night by a guide dog in training and discovered he had low blood sugar. Intrigued, Mark did four to five years of research and discovered the dog was able to smell the change in his blood sugar level and was also able to be trained to alert him of such a change. In 2004, Mark incorporated Dogs4Diabetics as a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation. We’ve been training dogs and placing them with people with diabetes since that time, and we are an accredited group with Assistance Dogs International. In total, we’ve trained more than 125 dogs, and placed more than 90 dogs.
Q: What type of training is involved for the dogs and applicants?
A: All of our dogs are donated to us from other service organizations, such as Guide Dogs for the Blind and Canine Companions for Independence, so they are all high-functioning, well-trained dogs the moment we receive them. Typically, the dogs are Labradors, Golden Retrievers, or Labrador-Golden mixes and are typically about 18 months old.
Once we receive the dogs, we add scent training and continue their socialization to promote optimum service dog behavior. The dogs are trained to distinguish the scent of chemical changes in blood sugar as it goes down. When they smell the scent change, they put a small cloth device called a bringsel, which hangs from their collar, in their mouths and present themselves in front of their owners. This is the signal that the owner’s blood sugar may be dropping and they should test their blood sugar. If the dog is right, they are rewarded with a treat. And, the owner is able to treat his/her own low blood sugar before it becomes problematic. Before they graduate, the dogs must achieve an alert accuracy level of at least 80 percent. Our dogs are a real-time tool to be used in addition to testing and may certainly help people manage their blood sugar.
For people living with diabetes, there are several requirements each person must meet before being accepted into the program. Once accepted, there are about 100 hours of training required to understand how to care for the dogs. During the training, we try to match the dog and person based on disposition and needs. By the end of the training, sometimes there’s a match. Sometimes it may take months or even a year before the right dog comes along. If a match is made, a ceremonial handing off of the leash occurs at graduation and a continuous relationship is developed.
Q: Will you share a memorable story about one of the dogs?
A: I’m a firm believer that no one tells our story better than our people, and some of the most profound stories come from kids who use D4D. At a recent graduation celebration, one of our 12-year-old graduates, Carter, got up to give a speech to thank his trainer and D4D. He knew he might have a low as a result of nervousness or anxiousness, but he went ahead with his speech. Sure enough, his dog, Herman, alerted him in the middle of his speech. He handed the microphone over to his trainer, got down on his knees, pulled his glucose monitor out of his pack, tested and treated himself, rewarded his dog, and then got up and finished his speech. It gave everybody in the audience goose bumps.
Q: What are your plans for the future?
A: We are a small organization, and the demand is great. We receive a huge number of applications from around the world. Out of every one hundred applications, one person gets placed in class. We know we would like to expand, but it’s currently an issue of funding. However, people are extremely creative in trying to raise money for us, and we appreciate all of it. In fact, our biggest public event for the year is just around the corner! We’re excited to host the 5th Annual Walk for the Dogs event on August 11 and encourage people who are interested in participating to create a team.
In addition to fundraising, we rely heavily on our volunteer staff to train the dogs, place the dogs, provide foster care for the dogs, and run the business side of our operation. Our goal is to provide a dog to every person living with diabetes who may like to use one.
Wouldn’t that be amazing? Susan and her team are doing incredible work. I agree with Susan that the people always tell the best stories, so we’re featuring Carter and his mother Eva later this month. Thanks to Susan for taking the time to share more about this wonderful organization!
All the best,
Disclosure: Susan Millhollon received no compensation for this post. All opinions contained in this post reflect those of the interviewee, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies or affiliates.