Liz is one of your soaraway Shoot Up’s regular readers and contributors; she is also the proud owner of Lola the Labradoodle who is being trained to detect Liz’s hypos.
I’m a wife, mother and poet. I’m also a brittle diabetic. It’s very difficult to keep my blood sugar levels in the normal range. Any little thing can send them whizzing up or plunging down – being excited, worried, sad or happy, a windy day, a hot day… It’s often only retrospectively I can guess what might have been a reason for expected unexpectedness. There is no way of predicting how it will react. It might go up or down. And I have no warning symptoms of low blood sugar – which can drop within 15 minutes from a too high 10 to a too low 2.
Because I can become hypo without realising it at all, I can’t drive. Traveling and stressful situations are difficult. I cope by doing lots of blood tests.
I use animal insulin (which has a slower and less aggressive action than ‘human’ or analogue insulin). I also stick to a low GI, low carbohydrate diet, which has also helped. And I have an insulin pump that gives me the ability to make very fine adjustments to my insulin levels. My control is much better than it used to be. But it’s still not good.
Night times are worst – I wake up once or twice, or if I’ve been doing something exciting, three times to check. But in between, I can still – and have – become unconscious.
Concerns were raised after a particularly prolonged early morning low blood sugar. My husband checked in on me before rushing off to take our son somewhere – a two hour round trip. He asked if I was okay, I said yes. But as he left, and I tried to get out of bed – I realised I wasn’t okay, in fact, I couldn’t move. And just then my ability to shout out also left! When he came home two hours later I was unconscious on the floor.
It was suggested that I keep my blood sugar levels higher to try to avoid the likelihood of becoming unconscious at night. Also to help with the fact that trying to keep my blood sugar levels within the normal range means that I go low fairly frequently and this has affected my memory. But I’d like to keep my eyesight, kidneys, and heart working as well! I have no complications at the moment despite being diabetic for 41 years. My Consultant’s view was that it would be better to run the risk of later complications than the risk of brain damage now…
This is how I became a Lola owner. I had already put my name down on a list to tentatively talk about having a dog trained to alert for low or high blood sugar. Now while I was sure, my husband wasn’t so sure – could it really work? Would we be capable of training it? He was a cat person, not a dog person. There were lots of things to think about, but eventually – my time had come!
Bundle of puppy fun
We didn’t follow the normal route – I wanted a particular type of dog, as I do have teensy tendency to OCD-ness. I wanted a dog that doesn’t shed, or smell too doggy. I wanted a small one so I could carry it over dirty ground. We decided we would like to buy our own dog, but this would mean training it ourselves under supervision from the charity Medical Detection Dogs.
Medical Detection Dogs are the only charity in the UK training dogs to do this specialised work. They assessed me as to my suitability to look after and train a dog. And then, with advice as to how to choose a suitable puppy, we chose a puppy, Lola the Labradoodle. She was a small bundle of golden-apricot curls and so scrummy we all fell instantly in love with her, even my husband, who, like the rest of us, is now utterly besotted.
Lola does a lot of laughing
Having a puppy is hard work – training them to sit etc. and go to the loo in the right place. Training a service dog is even harder as their behaviour has to be exemplary. The dog has to do as it is told at all times but especially in public places, ignore other people, not sniff goods on shelves, not solicit attention. It has to be introduced to all sorts of noises (thunder, cars, whistles, saucepans dropping, etc.) and situations (shops, pavements, buses, trains, parks, other dogs) and types of people and their “stuff” shopping (trolleys, wheelchairs, pushchairs, shopping bags, umbrellas etc.)
The hardest thing for us was to train Lola NOT to jump up at people. She’s very good when out and about now, but if she sees a friend in our village she does still get excited! All my friends know that they have to ignore her until she is sitting before she can be stroked.
We still have problems – she runs to greet house visitors and then realises – I have to sit, so she sits, but her sit looks like it is being performed on a small vibrating portion of floor. As soon as the hand gets to her she bounces up like she was sitting on a spike. In the end I have to go to shut her behind a gate – but she pre-empts me, dashes to the gate and sits this side of it on her cushion – not only sits, but lies down, and looks up with an angelic expression – you see? You see what a good dog I am? Not only am I sitting, I have lain down, I deserve LOVE! So then she gets a pet, the cushion goes swinging from side to side, she slips off and jumps up – and ends up behind the gate.
At the same time as training Lola to sit at kerbs etc, she has been introduced slowly, step by step, to a programme designed to help her recognise when my blood sugar smells ‘different’. I need her to be able to tell me when I am getting low, not when I AM low.
The training is complicated, and incremental, but to put it in a nutshell, Lola gets a treat, a very high quality treat that she doesn’t get at any other time, if she alerts me to the fact that my blood sugar is getting or is high or low.
Lola does alert, and gets it right a lot of the time (not always! but we are doing intensive training to get her to be more consistent).
She alerts several times a day. She does this by coming and sitting beside me and making a small noise. If I ask her what is wrong she looks at me intently and tries to get at my hand. I let her smell it and she licks it to get the taste and if I am high or low she paws me. If I don’t notice her trying to get my attention, she nudges my leg. Or stands on her back legs and does a little dance.
She has alerted loads of times during the night. Once, after we and Lola had all had a tiring day, she didn’t alert until I was unconscious – my husband did not wake up to her normal whines, so she ‘escalated’ her alert and barked and woke him up. Part of her treat at night is to sleep next to me on the bed. My temperature falls whilst unconscious and she helps me get warm again!
I would never, in my old OCD days, have predicted this. I can hardly believe it – but she has cured me of worrying that much about germs – I SLEEP WITH A DOG. Yes, me. And not only that, she gets muddy. She rolls in mud. I shower her after in the bath – but I don’t carry her over mud as I envisaged, I love her so much I can overcome my OCD side and even enjoy watching her become black and sticky. And I have become fit – I walk an hour every day, and have been out far across the fields, something I would never have been brave enough to do before Lola. She has changed my life. And did I mention how scrummy she is?