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Dogs trained to spot diabetics' blood sugar swings

Classes like this one near Nashville promise to train family dogs to alert their diabetic owners to changes in blood sugar.

The British Medical Journal found years ago that dogs have an uncanny way of detecting drops in blood sugar – even before their diabetic owners pick up on it. Diabetes alert dogs have become a burgeoning industry in which highly-trained golden retrievers go for as much as $20,000. But some trainers are now trying to harness the lifesaving potential of the family pet.

Nine-year-old Leo Mackey and his dog Teddy -- a lanky lab mix with no pedigree -- are part of a pilot class on a farm outside Nashville. Seated in a circle, participants hold cotton balls in each fist. One was soaked in his mouth during a recent blood sugar low.

“So when he smells the scent that’s running through my body – kind of – then he knows he’s going to get a treat,” Mackey says.

Teddy still has work to do on the signal he’ll give when he catches that whiff for real. Then he’ll learn to wake Leo up if he’s sleeping through a drop in glucose levels. Type 1 diabetics can become desensitized to the feeling of a crash coming on. One in 20 dies from sudden blood sugar swings, according to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation -- keeping parents on guard.

“There are times when we’ll go in in the middle of the night,” says Leo's father, Steve Mackey.

Mackey knew about alert dogs, but also knew he couldn’t afford one. Now, train-your-own programs like this one have popped up. One in Seattle relies almost entirely on a series of YouTube videos. Training Teddy will run hundreds instead of thousands of dollars. 

“If it can work and it feels like it’s really going to, it’s just such a relief,” Mackey says. “It’s not the answer, but it’s such an easier way to do life.”

No alert dog is a sure thing, even the most expensive. A family in Texas has sued a breeder over a bum alert dog. And prosecutors in Missouri have stepped-in in another case. For alert dogs on a budget, a 10-week course in Nashville won’t get them ready for the real world, says head trainer Melanie Del Villaggio.

“They have a start,” she says. “But they have a long ways to go.”

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