Cara Toland goes to bed at night having to worry about the possibility of not waking up the next morning. Along with her school work, Cara has type 1 diabetes and is hypoglycemic unaware—a condition where diabetics are unable to tell when they have low blood sugar because their body stops giving them the normal warning signs, such as shaking or sweating, that signal the need for attention.
Rather than relying on her body’s natural alerts, Cara has enlisted the help of Ava, a black lab who she is training as a medical alert service dog, to let her know when her blood sugar is low. If a type 1 diabetic experiences an extreme low and doesn’t treat it in time, it can be life threatening, so Ava’s job is extremely important.
“I was getting closer and closer to not feeling when I was having a low, which is when it
becomes dangerous,” said Cara. “You may not even realize that you’re disoriented or about to pass out. You’re trying to go about your day, and then suddenly you’re about to hit the floor.”
If a type 1 diabetic experiences a low and doesn’t treat it in time, it can be life threatening. That’s why many people decide to enlist the help of a service dog. Dogs can be trained to deliver medical alerts for low blood sugar to their owner with a specific cue learned through official service dog training.
“What we look for is a dog with a good temperament and easy disposition,” said Alice Smith, Client Services Coordinator for PAWS Training Centers, a service and good canine citizen training center.”One that is willing to please and learns quickly.”
In Cara’s case, she decided to primarily self train her dog, Ava. Cara received Ava partially trained at 6 months old. At that point, Ava was beginning her scent training (to detect low blood sugar) and was public access ready, which means she responded to basic commands, such as heal and stay, and would not be a disruption in public spaces. A year and a half later, Ava is still perfecting her training.
“A lot of other owner trainers probably understand the sentiment of: you will mess up,” said Cara. “You will accidentally set yourself back a couple months in training, but it’s going to be okay. You’ll get there.”
Ava’s primary job is to detect when Cara has low blood sugar. Training for low blood sugar is called scent training. Ava is also learning to detect and alert Cara’s other medical needs, such as when she is going to faint from a heart rate and blood pressure related condition. When she is two years old, Ava will begin to do light mobility training, which will involve wearing a guide harness in order to assist Cara with mobility when she experiences fatigue. Training a service dog like Ava can be time consuming, but one of the major obstacles in training is other people. For Cara, training can be particularly challenging because she is on a college campus.
“Many of us love dogs, and, particularly students on campus, respond to dogs and want to come up and talk to it and pet it,” said Lorrie Wolf, Director of Disability Services at Boston University. “When someone interferes with a service dog, they’re interfering with its job, and its ability to perform a task that could save somebody’s life.”