San Rafael Guide Dogs washouts find new life detecting low blood-sugar levels in diabetics
This article reprinted from the Marin Independent Journal.
By Richard Halstead
February 3, 2007
Dogs that have washed out of San Rafael's Guide Dogs for the Blind
program are finding new employment - saving lives by sniffing out
low blood sugar in Type 1 diabetics.
Sometimes referred to as juvenile diabetes because it is frequently
diagnosed in childhood, Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease
that occurs when the pancreas stops producing insulin. Insulin is
a hormone necessary for the body's cells to use glucose, or blood
sugar, for energy. Over time, the high blood sugar levels can be
toxic to virtually every system of the body.
To prevent this from happening, Type 1 diabetics inject themselves
with insulin several times a day. They must be careful, however,
not to take too much insulin. If blood glucose levels fall too low,
brain damage and death can result. This is a danger particularly
at night when the diabetic is sleeping.
That is how Mark Ruefenacht, 45, got the idea of training dogs
to detect low blood sugar in diabetics.
Ruefenacht, a Type 1 diabetic since he was 29, injected himself
with insulin before going to sleep on a business trip seven years
ago, because he had eaten a doughnut and drunk hot chocolate before
going to bed. What he forgot to calculate was that he had been physically
active that day. As a result, his blood sugar fell dangerously low.
Fortunately for him, a dog he was training for Guide Dogs for the
Blind woke him up.
"Otherwise, who knows if I'd be alive today," Ruefenacht
Ruefenacht works for Heusser Neweigh, a Concord-based company that
supplies measurement instruments to crime labs. He knew that Breathalyzers
are able to distinguish between diabetics who are disoriented because
of low blood sugar and people who are drunk. Prior to the development
of Breathalyzers, hypoglycemic diabetics were sometimes assumed
to be drunk and died in jail cells, he said.
"It made me think this was probably something you could train
into a dog," Ruefenacht said.
His dogs are trained to pick up the scent that the body emits
when its blood sugar level is low, and alert their owners. As it
turns out, the scent is similar enough in each person for the dogs
to recognize it.
"When the body senses that the blood sugar is falling, it
puts out this chemical," Ruenfenacht said. "We actually
don't know what the chemical is."
So far, Dogs4Diabetics, the Concord nonprofit that Ruefenacht
created in 2004, has provided 10 trained dogs to diabetics and is
training another 10 dogs. The organization supplies its dogs only
to people with Type 1 diabetes, because the condition is more acute
than Type 2 diabetes.
Genetics may play a role in causing Type 1 diabetes, but the disease
has no proven cause. Obesity is a known risk factor for Type 2 diabetes.
The International Diabetes Federation estimates that 70,000 children
under the age of 15 develop Type 1 diabetes every year, while Type
2 also affects children as young as 8.
A 2001 survey of 5,000 Marin residents over 18 found that 3 percent
suffered from either Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, said Rochelle Ereman,
an epidemiologist with the Marin County Department of Health and
Dogs4Diabetics gets its dogs from Guide Dogs for the Blind, Ruefenacht
"We don't have to raise puppies. We don't have to train a
dog how to be a good service dog. All of that is built into them,"
There are many reasons why a dog might not be suitable for working
with the blind, said Joanne Ritter, director of marketing for Guide
Dogs for the Blind.
quot;It requires a lot of focus and a willingness to work and
an ability to be easily controlled, and then to sit under a desk
for a long period of time quietly," Ritter said. "Not
every dog is cut out for it."
Sniffing for low blood sugar is just one of the tasks for which
Guide Dogs' canines have been trained. Five dogs - three Labradors
and two Portuguese water dogs - participated in a recent study that
demonstrated their ability to detect lung cancer in the breath of
cancer sufferers with 99 percent accuracy. The study was conducted
by the Pine Street Foundation based in San Anselmo.
Canines that have flunked out of the Guide Dog program have also
gone on to careers in law enforcement - sussing out bombs, drugs
and injured people in need of rescue with their educated schnozzes.
Ruenfenacht and some of his dogs met recently with members of
Marin Families of Children with Diabetes, a local support group
for parents. Interest in the dogs is high. Lisa Shenson, the group's
founder, said approximately 80 people attended the meeting.
Ruefenacht said the blood sugar of juvenile diabetics rises and
falls rapidly because of their small body mass. Children are also
more active than adults. As result, they are more likely to become
hypoglycemic, he said.
The parents of Type 1 diabetics often monitor their child's blood
sugar several times during the night for this reason, Shenson said.
That is why many parents are eager to get one of Ruefenacht's dogs,
One of those parents is Jennifer Gammon of San Anselmo, whose
8-year-old daughter, Hannah, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes
when she was 2.
Gammon and her husband usually check Hannah's blood sugar at 11
p.m. before they go to bed and then again at 2 a.m. There are rare
occasions, however, when they sleep through the alarm and wake up
in a panic.
"We will have the security of having the dog sleep in her
room and knowing that - heaven forbid if she were to go low - the
dog would notify us. I think it would put our mind at ease,"
TO LEARN MORE
• Dogs4Diabetics: www.Dogs4Diabetics.com.
• Marin Families of Children with Diabetes: Call Lisa Shenson
at 328-3452. The group meets quarterly.
This article reprinted from The Marin Independent Journal.