By Tracy Morin | Photography courtesy of Hub City Service Dogs and Mallard Media
Service dogs at Wildrose Kennels are bred and trained to assist those with diabetes and, ultimately, save lives.
November marks Diabetes Awareness Month, but there is a subset of silent helpers in the fight against the potentially dangerous effects of this widespread disease, and one of which many people aren’t aware: diabetes alert dogs.
Even those who do know about these four-legged lifesavers may not realize that some are born right here in Mississippi. Tom Smith, owner of the Oxford, Miss., outpost of Wildrose Kennels, explains that his company breeds and trains Irish and British Labradors, producing dogs with various skill sets, including the now-trademarked Gentleman’s Gun Dogs, adventure dogs, companion dogs, and diabetic alert dogs.
Though Wildrose was founded in 1972, it was brought to Mississippi in 1999, when the University of Mississippi Police Department Chief Mike Stewart established its Oxford location. Smith has a long history with Wildrose Kennels. He purchased his first dog in 2008, became an associate trainer in 2010, moved to general manager in 2014, and purchased the business at the start of 2019.
“Every type of dog we produce revolves around impeccable obedience and public access,” Smith explains. “We start the super scent series at one-and-a-half weeks old, introducing scent to them — one day a bird scent, the next day a diabetic scent. We alternate. The puppies’ eyes and ears aren’t even open yet, but their noses work.”
Introducing scents early is called “imprinting,” and the earlier this technique is introduced, the more entrenched that instinct becomes as the puppy grows older and as the skill is developed further. Most types of training continue until the puppy is eight weeks old, but those selected for diabetic alert purposes receive extra work until they are one year to 14 months old. During this time, the trainers focus on all the necessary obedience — essentially, continuing the early scent work and training them to alert in cases of low blood sugar.
“We watch our breeding very closely, and we want to produce game finders, so we want our dogs to use that nose that has developed over millions of years to find game and food,” Smith notes. “We can funnel that, for diabetic alert dogs, to focus on the diabetic low blood sugar scent.”
For this purpose, dogs are far more highly attuned than human beings; they can detect low blood sugar simply by smelling their handler’s breath, which triggers them to alert the owner. And, as they get older, they can even alert from the other end of the house, Smith says. Their noses are that sensitive.
After being placed in a home at 12-to-14 months, the handler continues to work with the dog, using a local trainer to help if needed. Once the dog has those skills entrenched, the handler can do the work himself, rewarding the appropriate behavior.
“It’s no different than a drug-sniffing dog — they don’t care about the drugs, but they know if they alert to them, they get a reward, like a tennis ball to retrieve,” Smith explains. “These dogs have been trained for birds for hundreds of years, so we’re just redirecting that to another scent.”
Diabetes alert dogs are trained with the help of those who have the disease. They allow their blood sugar to get lower, then spit on cotton balls, which are then frozen for later use. The trainer will insert the cotton ball into a small tube and introduce that to the puppies. The dog is also trained to alert the owner, often with a device called a bringsel, which Smith describes as a small bumper that the dog can bring to the diabetic to say, “Check your blood sugar.”
“Some handlers want different alerts,” Smith adds. “They might want them to approach and paw them, for example. It’s a personal preference.”
Smith estimates the Oxford facility has placed 30 or more diabetes dogs in homes over the years. And, in fact, dogs can be even more reliable than modern technology. Smith notes that, for those wearing a glucose monitor, dogs can alert 20-to-40 minutes before the monitor goes off. Needless to say, he has received a plethora of positive feedback from owners over the years.
“A gentleman in New York still talks about how many times that dog saved his life,” Smith says. “And we used to place diabetic alert dogs not as hunting dogs, but we’ve found they can multitask. Even if they’re hunting, the diabetic scent will override their hunting, and they’ll go to the handler to alert.”
Smith points out that owners receive not only steady companionship from a canine pal, but a lifesaving agent that can allow them to live their lives with more freedom — without the fear of a diabetic episode when away from home.
However, would-be owners must think ahead to receive the properly equipped four-legged friend. “People don’t realize how long the training process is — we train only dogs that are born at Wildrose, and it’s such a long process,” Smith says. “Humans smell in parts per million. Dogs smell in parts per billion.”