The Origin of Dogs for Diabetics
Dogs for Diabetics (D4D) is the seminal organization to research, train and place Medical Assistance Diabetic Alert Dogs with insulin-dependent diabetics to assist them in managing their insulin therapy. Its dogs are scent-trained to recognize the chemical changes in blood sugar in order to provide an alert prior to the onset of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), a debilitating condition that is a side-effect of insulin therapy.
D4D traces its roots back to 1999, when its founder, Mark Ruefenacht, a Type I diabetic, had a pivotal experience with Benton, a guide dog puppy in training. While traveling on business to New York City, Mark had a serious problem with hypoglycemia. The dog aggressively aroused him from an incoherent state, and caused him to recognize his condition and treat it before he was completely incapacitated. This incident led Mark to explore the idea that assistance dogs could be trained to use their phenomenal sense of smell to detect and alert on hypoglycemic episodes in diabetics.
Five Years of Research
Mark pioneered a five-year research project that eventually become D4D. During this period, he worked with other dog trainers in disciplines ranging from search and rescue, bomb and drug detection to cancer detection protocols. Mark was able to couple his professional experience in forensic science with years of experience with Guide Dogs for the Blind of San Rafael (GDB) to develop the training protocols now used to train dogs in this unique scent-detection effort. In 2003, Armstrong, a yellow Labrador Retriever, was donated to Mark, by GDB, to be trained to detect and alert on hypoglycemia. After it was determined that the scent discrimination training process was successful, Armstrong was tested with other Type 1 diabetics and found that the scent signaling hypoglycemic was common to all diabetics.
D4D Founded in 2004
Dogs for Diabetics, Inc. was founded in October, 2004, as a tax-exempt 501 (c) (3) non-profit corporation. Since that time, D4D has scent-trained many dogs, evaluated hundreds of prospective clients, and continues to support dozens of active teams. Our dogs are provided to our clients after extensive training of both the dog and client, at no cost.
Mark and Armstrong are recognized in the Guinness Book of World Records as the first diabetic alert dog scientifically trained for this purpose. Dogs for Diabetics, Inc. was the first service dog provider accredited by Assistance Dogs International to provide dogs for this purpose. Armstrong passed away in 2012.
Mark and his dogs make regular appearances to speak across the United States and around the world. Mark has addressed various scientific conferences such as the The Pittsburgh Conference, The National Conference of Standards Laboratories and The National Academy of Forensic Sciences. He has addressed the US Department of Commerce in Washington, DC on “Service Dogs in the Work Place and the American’s With Disabilities Act.” The program has been featured in numerous newspapers, magazines and television programs since it was established. Mark and D4D have been featured in multiple articles by the American Diabetes Association in its magazine, Diabetes Forecast.
The Need is Great
In the U.S. today, approximately 5 million persons use insulin to assist in managing their disease. All insulin users suffer from bouts of hypoglycemia, and 17% suffer from “hypoglycemic unawareness”, a condition that inhibits their ability to sense their dropping blood sugar. Children are particularly at risk, as they do not have the ability to manage their disease. 55% of hypoglycemic episodes occur at night, and most diabetics do not wake up when they occur. Approximately 2-6% of deaths in insulin-dependent diabetics are believed to be triggered by hypoglycemia. Demand for these dogs is significant, with D4D receiving dozens of inquiries for every dog available.
Approximately 2-6% of deaths in insulin-dependent diabetics are believed to be triggered by hypoglycemia.
Our organization provides diabetics and their families with a critically-needed, reliable early-warning system for this recurring, acute byproduct of diabetic control that can incapacitate a diabetic in as few as twenty minutes and, if left untreated, lead to coma or even death. D4D’s dogs have the ability to identify the onset of hypoglycemia, as the blood sugar is dropping, in many cases 15 to 30 minutes ahead of it being registered by a glucose meter. The dog’s capability exceeds current consumer technology.
The Benefits of Living with a Diabetic Alert Dog
Living with the diabetic client, sleeping beside their bed at night and accompanying them throughout their day, D4D dogs provide an enhanced level of security in addition to companionship and emotional support for the diabetics they serve. Everyone associated with D4D has been powerfully moved by the effect D4D-trained dogs have on the lives of the individuals and families utilizing this program.
The Sources of D4D’s Dogs
D4D does not breed dogs for its use. Instead, it has adopted a “green-oriented” philosophy, believing that other service dog organizations have sufficient dogs that can be trained for this work, without adding to overall dog populations. Accordingly, in order to assure that these specially breed and trained dogs go specifically to a service or assistance dog use, D4D has partnered with Guide Dogs for the Blind of San Rafael to train their career change dogs for this service.
The Other Work of D4D
Besides training diabetics in the use of medical alert dogs, D4D also provides post-placement support for the working life of its dogs. Additionally, D4D is active in promoting service dog rights and awareness of those rights to the general public. D4D supports the diabetic community with a monthly support group “Type You” to provide support to all insulin-dependent diabetics, whether they use a dog or not.
D4D continues to study the science associated with this phenomena. It is probable that only a limited population of diabetics will be able to benefit from one of D4D’s dogs; however, the entire diabetic community will benefit if medical technology can provide a comparable non-invasive tool to protect against this condition.
Research is a major objective of D4D. Obtaining support to study the impact of the dog’s support of our clients, in their diabetes management, as well as their overall physical and emotional health is a major objective of our mission.
Read an article on Sudden Death – Hypoglycemia PDF.