This week on Jobs For Pets, we have diabetes assist dog Butter, and the human responsible for training Butter – Ms Stella Chew, who opens up about how her assist dog Butter helps her manage her disability.
Age: 10 years old
Breed: Singapore Special/ Mongrel
Butter training to fetch juice
What Does A Diabetes Assist Dog Do?
According to the SPD Singapore, diabetes alert dogs are medical service dogs “taught to assist persons based on the recognition of symptoms pertaining to a specific medical condition”.
Diabetes assist dogs are “trained to lick [and] nudge the owner with their noses” when they detect a shift in the owner’s blood sugar levels.
Butter doning a “Working Dog” vest
After being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes (and after much research on the subject matter), Ms Chew discovered she could train her dog Butter to be a diabetic alert dog, to alert her of the shifts in her blood sugar levels, before she falls into hypoglycaemia – when one’s blood sugar levels become too low.
Instead of purchasing a trained dog from specialists, Ms Chew trained her 10 year-old Singapore Special, Butter, to be an assist dog.
To help hone Butter’s scenting, Ms Chew lets Butter smell “saliva samples [to simulate] real life hypoglycaemic situations”. Butter is “given praises and treats when she actively smell my breath (scenting) and nudges me (alerting)”.
Being a diabetes assist dog is not for every pooch. The job is demanding, and requires certain personality/ character traits from the dog:
Potential assist dogs need to be “relatively intelligent” as “an intelligent dog will appreciate a training based on reasoning and application to its instincts.
An intelligent dog will also respond well to rewards [and] are expected to behave with dignity in public places”.
Potential assist dogs also cannot be too young, concurs Ms Chew.
She explains, “as a dog’s intelligence and sense of responsibility is hard to be determined at a puppy stage”, young adult dogs are thus ideal candidates for the job.
“It is recommended to adopt a young adult from a shelter. Two lives saved at one go,” Ms Chew adds.
“Persistence is another quality encourage[d] in an alert dog. If she cannot wake the patient, the dog can be trained to wake other family members”.
This is imperative, as the dog’s ability to be persistent in alerting the patient to changes in blood sugar will help alert the patient to an oncoming hypoglycaemic episode.
Ms Chew highlights that service dogs have to be trained differently from pet dogs.
“Unlike competition dogs, they need to be treated with respect and certain harsh methods of dog trainings utilised to guarantee reliability will not be suitable. Also, they need to be taught accountability so pure reward based training is also not reliable enough”.
Training an assist dog also takes consistency and frequency.
Explains Ms Chew, “like human beings, dogs can forget what a smell means to them if they have not been exposed [to it] for too long”.
She recommends that the dog be “remind[ed] of the scent” “at least once in three days”.
Saliva samples that Ms Chew uses to hone Butter’s scenting
Dogs like Butter “can be trained to sense an oncoming hypoglycaemic attack even before the symptoms start”.
Butter, now trained to pick up the smell of Ms Chew having low blood sugar levels, alerts Ms Chew before the symptoms kick in.
Explains Ms Chew, she “alerts me at 4mmol/l. This is when the hypoglycaemia starts. I usually feel it at about 3. When it is 3, the body goes into a panic mode and I tend to over-treat the hypoglycaemia by eating more than I should. Nowadays, with my dog alerting me way before my symptoms start, giving me a good 30 mins notice, I can treat leisurely and logically”.
Butter has also nudged Ms Chew awake at night when she was asleep, and unaware of her falling blood sugar levels:
“My dog has been waking me up in the middle of the night when I had completely no idea that I was going into a hypoglycaemic situation”.
The Road Ahead
Ms Chew has also founded Dogs & Diabetes Singapore, a Facebook page dedicated to bringing awareness to medical service dogs, and what they can do to help prevent/ warn their humans of the early onsets of hypoglycaemia.
She also trains people’s dogs or works with them to pick a suitable dog from a shelter.
If you would like Ms Chew to help train your dog to become a diabetes assist dog, reach out to her.