HALIFAX, Nova Scotia — Catherine Reeve, a PhD student at Dalhousie University, is currently trying to advance diabetes research by studying whether animals can detect changes in blood sugar levels. Reeves is hoping her study will eventually help train diabetic service dogs. While there are diabetic service dogs working in Canada, there’s a lack of needed scientific proof. Nutella, a Border Collie and former rescue dog, is helping Reeve with her research.
“The dogs are fantastic and 100 percent accurate,” said Reeve’s of her research.
Guide Dogs Canada, a non-profit organization that provides service dogs free of charge, says there are currently nine diabetic service dogs working in Canada. The dogs are trained to detect when their owner’s blood sugar level drops dangerously low. The dogs are able to alert their owner, activate an emergency button or fetch a diabetic kit.
In the United States and the United Kingdom, there are private sector companies that offer diabetic service dogs, but these can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
While there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that dogs can detect diabetes, there is a lack of scientific evidence. Reeve is hoping to answer whether there is a scent associated with blood sugar we all share, or if it is different from person to person. She also hopes to see where the dogs are best trained, whether it’s in the lab using breath samples or trained directly with the person.
For the study, Reeve collected breath samples from patients with Type 1 diabetes and each patient provided low, normal and high blood sugar samples. The dog is then trained to match and identify the samples, repeating the task 39 times. The dogs are rewarded and motivated with treats.
“They will work non-stop, for as long as you want. We force them to have breaks, even if they don’t want the breaks,” said Reeve.
Reeve hopes to have the results of her research when she graduates one year from now.