8.10.15

To Dog Or Not To Dog? That Is The Question.

Should I get a diabetes service dog?

For the past two months, I have been debating this very question: should I invest in a diabetes service dog? Until two months ago, I didn’t even know this was a thing. In my defense, it’s quite recent- although service dogs have been used for years, diabetic assistance dogs only started popping up in the past few years, after anecdotal evidence suggested that dogs could sense blood sugars. Diabetes service dogs are trained to smell your scent when your blood sugars go low or high, and both alert you (by nudging, pawing, laying on you, etc.) and assist you (by bringing you testing supplies, glucose, insulin, or even getting help). For a Type 1 diabetic that lives alone, the latter part is really appealing.

Since moving into my own place a few months ago I have had at least 3 true blood sugar crashes that made me fearful of what could happen. One morning I woke up and the site of my insulin pump had become detached, resulting in sky-high blood sugar. If it weren’t for my incessantly beeping alarm clock, I may not have woken up at all. A service dog could help in these situations by preventing blood sugars from becoming that extreme and helping if they do. I do have a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) as part of my pump system, but the sensor, although great for seeing trends, isn’t always accurate and can often lag behind real life blood sugars, wasting precious time. Most importantly, despite some pumps that suspend insulin delivery when low and potential for closed loop technology, a CGM cannot get help in an emergency like a dog can.

A dog that could save my life, be my pal and avoid any anti-pet apartment rules I face living in New York City is a definite yes, right? Well, not so fast:

-Diabetes service dogs are really expensive. After some research I found one trainer that I trust, and the full training would be $20,000! This is far cheaper than most, which seem to average around $25,000. This does not include the actual costs of having and maintaining a dog. Some non-profit organizations help you fundraise, but their waitlists are typically 1-2 years long.

-The process is really long. For the trainer I found, once I apply and am approved (which may take a few months), I could help choose my dog… but then must wait 18 months-2 years for it to be fully trained. This trainer offered an option where you can pay half and get the dog after 9 months, but then you become responsible for the rest of its training and certification. Some organizations have dogs ready, but again, the wait lists take just as long. How can I possible know what my life will be like two years from now? What if there is new diabetes technology, or even a cure by then? Would the money and time investment be worth it? There are so many possibilities.

-The dog needs to be with you all the time. I’ve heard that there are some times when you can be separated from your dog but, in order for the dog to be most effective, it needs to be with you constantly. To be honest, I don’t mind talking to people about my diabetes, but I’m not sure how I’d feel about it being a conversation all the time. Although it’s tough to struggle with an invisible illness, having it suddenly become visible gives me pause.

When I’ve explained this diabetes doggie debate to my friends, these negatives were seemingly the end of the conversation for them: a service dog sounds nice, but isn’t worth it. The downsides could have ended the debate for me too, yet I’m still considering it. The truth is that my friends, while well-meaning, do not understand the very real fear that comes from relying on medication and technology to stay alive, the slim but real danger we face every night when we go to sleep, and the complications potentially awaiting us down the road. For me, maybe spending $20,000 on a trained dog is worth it for my peace of mind. Maybe.

Melissa Passarelli was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and some other fun health issues at age 10. When not working for a child health non-profit in New York, she enjoys being active in the online health community, going to the movies, and wishing she were Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter! (DISCLAIMER: Melissa is a volunteer Diabetes Ambassador for Medtronic; all opinions are her own).

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