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Trained dogs watch over two Fresno diabetics

Labradors alert their keepers about drops in blood-sugar levels.

Published online in the Fresno Bee on Tuesday, August 11, 2009
By Barbara Anderson / The Fresno Bee

These Labrador retrievers look like any two dogs playfully tugging at each other's ears in Kristin Wilson's living room--but both are at work.

Their job: to alert Wilson and Sheila Zamora of Fresno, both diabetics, when their blood-sugar levels are falling. Quick action is needed to spare them from dangerous effects of hypoglycemia--seizures or even comas.

Wilson's yellow lab Kolumbo and Zamora's black lab Sherman are assistance dogs, just like those who help the blind.

The women say these dogs have accurately detected when their blood-sugar levels have dropped--and have even reminded them to eat when they've failed to act. Training dogs for diabetics is a relatively new idea. At least one study seems to suggest that dogs can detect low blood-sugar levels in people, but researchers are still looking for proof and an explanation of the phenomenon.

Researchers at Queen's University Belfast in Ireland questioned 212 dog owners in 2008. The owners were Type 1 insulin-dependent diabetics. Their dogs all were just pets--not trained assistance dogs. Sixty-five percent of the owners said the dogs had reacted to at least one hypogylcemic episode, with 31% of the dogs reacting to 11 or more episodes.

The dogs' reactions included barking, licking their owners, staring intently and jumping on their owners. A few of the dogs trembled and some ran away from their owners, the researchers said.

It's thought the dogs detect a scent from the body when a drop in blood sugar is imminent or occurring, said Diabetics4Dogs Program Director Carol Edwards. The nonprofit, based in the Bay Area city of Concord, trained Wilson's and Zamora's service dogs.

The smell could be acetone, endorphins 'and a few other things,' Edwards said. But there are still more compounds to identify, she said. 'I would love to know what they're smelling.'

The dogs are exposed to the low-blood sugar scent in training, Edwards said. The dogs also receive obedience and social training before being placed with a diabetic, she said.

Since the nonprofit began training dogs in 2004, Edwards said few diabetics have returned their dogs for failing to detect hypoglycemia. The business has trained 50 dogs and has an additional 12 in training, she said.

The American Diabetes Association hasn't taken a position on diabetes assistance dogs, said Bo Smith, director of marketing and communications in the association's Los Angeles office.

'Science has not yet proven the dogs are reacting to a change in body chemistry,' Smith said.

Wilson and Zamora, however, are convinced.

Even dog play doesn't keep the canines from their job. As they romp in Wilson's living room, Sherman stops briefly and bites a 'bringzel,' a black cloth pouch hanging around his neck. He looks at Zamora. When he gets Zamora's attention, he returns to nipping Kolumbo's ears. That was Sherman's signal for her to check her blood sugar, Zamora said.

Zamora's blood sugar isn't low, but it has dropped 31 points to 228 in the 17 minutes she's been at Wilson's home. Although Zamora doesn't need to eat, Sherman gets a treat: cheese crackers.

Wilson and Zamora are longtime insulin-dependent diabetics; Wilson, 38, was diagnosed with diabetes at age 6; Zamora, 45, has had diabetes since she was 17.

The women's blood-sugar levels can plummet without warning to below 50, a level low enough to cause seizures and coma. Because they have had diabetes for so long, they no longer experience cold sweats, tremors or other warning symptoms of hypoglycemia.

Zamora has had seven seizures--five within the last two years, including two that occurred when her husband was not home. Her teenage daughters called paramedics for help in the middle of the night each time. One of the seizures lasted 25 minutes.

She got Sherman in October so her daughters would not have to go through that again, Zamora said.

Wilson, a single mother, hasn't had seizures, but she wanted an assistance dog to prevent them. She brought Kolumbo home July 25 from Dogs4Diabetics.

Wilson spent two weeks at the Concord dog-training site learning how to handle a service-assistance dog. Kolumbo was placed with her after the fourth day. The training included taking him to stores, restaurants, on a bus ride and on the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, she said.

Wilson, a Fresno County Children's Protective Services worker, paid $50 for an application fee and $100 for training materials. Other costs, including a dog crate, were about $1,400, she said.

Kolumbo and Wilson are still in training. They won't 'graduate' until the dog consistently alerts Wilson when her blood-sugar levels drop. Wilson must keep weekly charts to show how Kolumbo is doing. 'He's at about 80% accuracy,' she said.

Zamora, a second-grade teacher at Heaton Elementary, said Sherman's accuracy is 'amazing.' Three times in the past two weeks, the dog caught low-blood sugar levels while she swam in her backyard pool, she said.

Wilson's learning not to ignore the dog's signal--he puts his head on her arm when her blood sugar is dropping, she said.

Wilson said she takes the dog with her to work, the store and in the car. 'I take him everywhere,' she said.

Sherman will be at Zamora's side when her students return to school on Aug. 17. Her students know he's a working dog, she said. Last year when she introduced Sherman to her class for the first time she let the boys and girls briefly pet him. 'The rest of the year, they didn't touch him,' she said.

The women said the service-assistance dogs quickly become indispensable.

Kolumbo is 'my guardian angel,' Wilson said. 'I don't know what I would do without him.'

The reporter can be reached at banderson@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6310.