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This article is from the WebMD News Archive

What dogs can do that medicine can’t

Why dogs can truly be man’s best friend
WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks
girl and dog

5th July 2010 - We’ve probably all encountered a guide dog with its trademark fluorescent collar and white harness, but dogs are now doing much more. In recent years they’ve been trained to sniff out cancers, warn people with diabetes of an oncoming attack, assist disabled people and help children with autism.

With their highly developed sense of smell and their ability to be trained, dogs are giving people with special needs greater independence, greater confidence and can even prove to be a life saver.

Diabetic Hypo Alert dogs

For people with particularly difficult to control diabetes or low awareness, Hypo Alert dogs can prompt them to check their blood sugar levels and take action before they suffer an attack.

Diabetic Hypo Alert Dogs are trained to detect both hypoglycaemia and hyperglycaemia. They can warn their owners by licking or pawing them, even before symptoms arise.

Yellow Labrador, Shirley, is one of a new breed of assistance dogs who can alert people with diabetes to potentially life-threatening fluctuations in their blood sugar levels. She was trained by the charity Cancer & Bio-detection Dogs and she lives with six-year-old Rebecca Farrah who has type-1 diabetes.

girl and dog
Night times were particularly worrying for Rebecca’s mother, Claire, and she wasn’t sleeping knowing that her daughter could be taken ill during the night without her knowing.
Since Shirley has been the family’s night watch dog she has woken Claire on four occasions when Rebecca has been in trouble and this quick action has meant that she didn’t need to be rushed to hospital.

Claire comments in a press statement: “It’s wonderful that I can actually sleep at night now without constantly worrying if Rebecca is okay. Shirley has taken over the night watch and I feel so much happier knowing that my daughter’s life is safe in her paws.”

The charity Cancer and Bio-detection Dogs is now working with endocrinology specialists at Bristol NHS Trust and Researchers at Bristol University to try and establish exactly what it is the dogs are detecting.

Support dogs and epilepsy

Of the 450,000 people with epilepsy in the UK, only 70% can be helped by medication, leaving the remaining 30% living with the fear of an attack that can strike at any time without warning.
Seizure alert dogs are trained to give a warning, either licking or pawing, before an epileptic seizure. This allows the person with epilepsy to get to a place of safety - ie, away from traffic, out of the bath, away from stairs - before they have a seizure.

Angela Gregory, Marketing and Fundraising Officer for Support Dogs UK, says it’s not clear what it is the support dog is detecting. “We do know that there are some changes that can occur in the body prior to seizures,” she says, adding “it could be pupil dialation, it could be sweat patterns, or muscle tension which we as humans don’t recognise, whereas dogs have a different range of senses.”

She says because of this it’s important to choose a dog with the right temperament as it’s vital there’s a close bond between dog and owner.

Jackie Evans from North Nottinghamshire has a dog called Ginny from Support Dogs. She told the charity: “Ginny will jump up and lick me madly to alert me that I am about to have a seizure. She does the same thing wherever I am; in the street, in the supermarket, or just in the house cooking dinner. It means I can get somewhere more private to avoid the embarrassment and to get to a safe place to avoid injury.”

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