Police dog retrains to sniff out diabetes

By Martin Johnston

Merenia Donne is training 16-month-old Uni to respond to potentially fatal hypoglycaemic attacks. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Merenia Donne is training 16-month-old Uni to respond to potentially fatal hypoglycaemic attacks. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Former police dog trainee Uni was not too keen on biting criminals, so he's had a change of career.

The 16-month-old German shepherd will become New Zealand's first diabetic response dog, if he passes the stringent tests.

A diabetic response dog lives with a person who has the diabetes complication hypoglycaemic unawareness, in which potentially fatal episodes of extreme low blood sugar can occur suddenly and without the usual symptoms such as hunger, tremors and increased heart rate.

About 10 per cent of type 1 diabetics and some people with type 2 diabete have hypoglycaemic unawareness.

Diabetic response dogs are trained to detect episodes, and can more quickly than medical detection devices.

A rubber rod called a bringsel hangs from a cord on the dog's collar. When the dog detects an approaching episode, it holds the bringsel in its mouth and shows its owner and can retrieve glucose tablets or other treatment.

If the patient is already unconscious, the dog can press a medical alarm button.

The dog's response is thought to be triggered by pheromone odours as the patient's blood-glucose level drops.

Merenia Donne, 39, of Wanganui, is training Uni. She founded the Kotuku Foundation Assistance Animals Aotearoa to train dogs to help people with disabilities and to provide pet therapy in hospitals and resthomes.

She said yesterday that Uni had failed the police-dog training programme because he did not want to do "the bite work" and this made him perfect for disability work.

"He's very sweet-natured, he's just delightful. He spends most of his time begging to have his tummy rubbed."

Uni's training will involve learning the correct response when presented with clothing worn by a diabetic during a hypoglycaemic episode.

But like a guide dog for a blind person, Uni will also have to learn to have near-perfect behaviour in public.

"He has to be pretty much bomb-proof, ignore everything [that might distract him] and focus totally on his handler.

"You're pretty much asking them not to be a dog, not to sniff anything."

Ms Donne has a trained dog, Rica, a 6-year-old female German shepherd, to help with her own disability, a head injury from a serious car crash which has left her prone to severe panic attacks. Rica can fetch Ms Donne's phone or take her to safe places in Wanganui and even warns her of imminent attacks by pressing her head on Ms Donne's thigh.

- NZ Herald

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