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MAGAZINE / Sept-Oct 2006 / The Nose Knows

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The Nose Knows

By Hannah Lee, Staff Writer

The Nose Knows

Belle started out as the puppy no one seemed to want.  In her short life of just a few months, the beagle was returned twice after purchase from a pet store.  Even though these returns had nothing to do with the dog’s temperament, it was the store’s policy to send “unwanted” dogs back to their breeders to ultimately be destroyed.  Pet store employee Kevin Weaver could not accept poor Belle’s grim fate.  Despite her hefty pure-breed price tag, Kevin knew Belle was worth saving and set up a payment plan to purchase her for his own. This small act of kindness not only changed Kevin’s life, it saved his life. 

Around the same time he got Belle, Kevin’s diabetes worsened, and he began having seizures regularly.  Now also working as a flight attendant, he met a woman on one of his flights who happened to train dogs to detect fluctuations in blood sugar levels.  Nine months and $9,000 later, Belle was able to check Kevin’s blood sugar level, sense oncoming seizures and even dial 911. 

Last February, Belle’s training was put to the test. After waking up one morning not feeling well, Kevin ignored Belle as she continually pawed at him thinking she simply had to go to the bathroom.  He let her outside, but she lingered at the door so he let her back in. “The next thing I know, I am waking up in the hospital,” explains Kevin.  “What Belle had been trying to tell me was my blood sugar was too low.  My ignoring her led to a seizure.” 

In fact, Kevin’s blood sugar was 25 — a level so low he should not have survived.  When Kevin began to seize, Belle’s new found training kicked in as she grabbed his cell phone, pressing 9 with her tooth to call emergency services.

Kevin used to have about five or six seizures a month.  Now, with Belle’s help, he has only had four in the last year.  She checks his blood sugar several times a day by licking the inner portion of his nose to test his ketone levels.  Usually everything is fine.  But about three times a week, she alerts him by whining and pawing at him that something isn’t right.  “And she has never been wrong,” remarks Kevin.  “Even my doctor is very supportive.  He’s noticed that my blood sugar has stabilized, and he also attributes that to Belle keeping on me to check my levels.”  

For her heroic act, Belle was one of this year’s recipients of the VITA Wireless Samaritan Award.  The first canine winner ever, Belle, with Kevin at her side, was honored at the award ceremony in Washington, DC. 

According to a study by the British Journal of Medicine, over one third of dogs living with a diabetic show some sort of behavioral change when their owner’s blood sugar level drops.  These dogs, without any special training, have their own way of alerting their owners of an oncoming attack even before the person has noticed any symptoms.   One dog in the study simply ran away and hid under a chair, while another dog often woke up the owner in the night after sensing a lapse in blood sugar.  This dog would only go back to sleep after the owner got up to get a snack to alleviate the glucose decline.

Although the exact reason for how these dogs can sense the changes in people is not yet known, some possible triggers include olfactory changes (sweating), muscle tremors and subtle behavioral variations in the human.   Belle uses physical contact with Kevin to detect the chemical changes in his body that predispose an attack.  However, these other dogs can identify symptoms just by close proximity to the diabetic. 

Regardless of how these dogs do what they do, the important point is that they can do it and do it well.  Just like Belle, many dogs have been responsible for saving their owners from potentially deadly diabetic episodes.  In combination with traditional methods to monitor blood sugar, having a pup around could act as an extra life insurance policy.