The first thing we discussed was why these dogs are so important. Obviously I had heard of type 1 diabetes, but I never heard of a subset of people with type 1 who are hypoglycemic unaware. In a nutshell, when our blood sugar levels drop, we feel the effects of it. People with type 1 diabetes who are also hypoglycemic unaware do not feel the symptoms and that can have deadly consequences if there is no one around who knows how to recognize what is happening or who knows how to help them.
The hardest part of training doesn’t even involve the dogs. It’s acquiring the saliva samples that we use in training. When our volunteers check their blood sugar levels and the numbers are within our parameters, the volunteer must get a cotton swab and swab saliva from the inside of their cheek. Without touching the tip, they carefully place the swab in a freezer-safe, sealable plastic bag. Then it must be double-bagged, labeled with the date and blood sugar level, and immediately put in the freezer. At no point can there be contamination of the tip of the swab lest the whole thing not work at all.
We need a cheek swab from a person with type 1 when their levels are just beginning to go high or go low. For example, we train for blood sugar drops by using a sample from when a volunteer’s level is between 60-70 on their glucometer. These samples are almost priceless for our training. We are lucky enough to have a few people willing to take the time to swab, seal, and label when their levels are within our parameters, but we do need more. At this point the longest a sample has been frozen and is still viable is three months. We don’t want to take a chance on losing the few samples we have, so testing beyond that three month mark will only happen by accident.
As a trainer, I know how much work goes into training a dog. I knew there would be extra work once I committed to training a diabetes alert dog. What I never considered was the necessary extras such as the network of volunteers with type 1 who are willing to give us samples and just how valuable those samples are. We wouldn’t be able to train these fabulous dogs without our volunteers.