Woman with diabetes hopes a dog can help her

The Spring Hill woman wants a dog to be trained to get help if she should pass out because of low blood sugar.

Published August 22, 2005

When Kris Aguilar leaves her Spring Hill home she makes sure there's a bag of Skittles tucked in her purse.

For now, she says, the candy is her best safety net.

As a Type I diabetic Aguilar's blood sugar is prone to drastic falls that can lead to her passing out or having a seizure. A couple Skittles, though, and she's back on track.

That is, if she can catch it. Aguilar, 36, suffers from low blood sugar unawareness. While most diabetics can feel the dizziness or headaches that accompany low sugar, often she can't feel the symptoms.

And if she's alone or on her own with her 2-year-old daughter, that's a scary prospect. But Aguilar said she thinks she's found a solution. Or at least a better safety net than a bag of Skittles could ever provide. It's not a breakthrough drug or cutting-edge medical technology.

It's a dog.

Aguilar is on a waiting list for a diabetic alert service dog. The animals are similar to Seeing Eye dogs but are trained to sense when a diabetic's blood sugar is out of whack.

"It will probably be like having my mom with me all the time asking did you check your blood sugar," Aguilar said.

Right now, a simple trip to the YMCA is a risky venture. Her situation is so serious she had to give up working as a secretary in a doctor's office three years ago.

The dogs, available from only a handful of trainers nationwide, are trained to smell changes in a diabetic's body chemistry when blood sugar levels dip.

Future dog owners send to trainers clothing they had on during a severe low or a seizure so the dogs can learn what to sniff for, said Michele Reinkemeyer, director of Heaven Scent Paws, a Missouri-based group that trains the dogs.

"I've got a deep freezer full of people's socks," Reinkemeyer said. "It's the same scent discrimination techniques used for training search and rescue, drug seizure or bomb sniffing dogs."

To alert it's owner, the dog is trained to lick or nibble it's owner's finger or face. And the dogs learn to hit a panic button in the house in case further help is needed, Reinkemeyer said.

That's a big help for diabetics like Aguilar.

Her husband has installed a system of video surveillance cameras in the house that he can monitor over the Internet from his Tampa office. And he calls four times a day to check on her.

But those measures aren't preventive.

Once, while helping her daughter out of the tub, Aguilar said she basically passed out on top of the child. She said she's lucky she hasn't had a car accident.

"It's scary for me," Aguilar said. "Having a baby changes things."

The dog will be able to give her a head's up, she said, before things become dangerous. She'll have enough time, for example, to pull off the road.

"It is just another tool to add to the package of taking care of diabetes," Reinkemeyer said. It's a help, but it isn't foolproof.

"If the dog gets sick, you can pretty much bet their ability to alert is going to be impaired," she said.

Clinical studies haven't been done yet, Reinkemeyer said, to prove the dogs' accuracy. And there are skeptics, she said.

"The initial reaction is always: "Are you sure that works?"' Reinkemeyer said.

Her year-old organization has a waiting list of more than 200 people, including Aguilar, who are convinced it does work. And they're willing to make big sacrifices to get one.

Each dog that Heaven Scent Paws trains costs about $16,000. Reinkemeyer says the organization barely breaks even, because the two-year training period for each dog is so involved.

Aguilar said she has to wait about a year until her dog is ready. And until then, she's planning fundraisers to help with the cost.

Tuesdi Fenter, communications director for the American Diabetes Association in Tampa, said the dogs are so new that the organization knows little about them.

"We know that there are advancements being made with dogs and other animals," Fenter said. "But we have never had anyone get one."

She sent out an e-mail to colleagues within the organization nationwide, she said, and got back a few responses from associates who had heard of groups that do the training.

But beyond that, she said, few seem to know much about it yet.

"It's just in its infancy now," said Mike Goehring, a trainer and executive director for the Great Plains Assistance Dogs Foundation in North Dakota, which began training diabetic alert dogs this summer.

But already his organization's waiting list for one of the dogs is about a year long, he said.

"It works, we know it works. It's not a psychic phenomenon," Goehring said. "It's basically as simple as the proof is in the puddin'."