Maria Tello was fast asleep in her Ventura home with her black Labrador retriever, Malachi, snoozing away on top of the blankets next to her.
Then, Malachi’s ears twitched. His eyes opened. Tello’s insulin pump alarm was beeping in a series of descending tones. Her blood sugar level was dropping too far. Left unattended, she could go into a coma or even die.
Malachi pawed at Tello with his front feet. No response. Malachi then pushed her with all four feet until she woke up. Malachi jumped off the bed and fetched a purse containing glucose tablets, holding it in his teeth as Tello woke, groggy, but aware she was in trouble.
“He has saved my life about five times last year,” Tello said.
Malachi is a service dog trained to help insulin-dependent diabetics such as Tello, 58, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes 30 years ago.
He also is among a growing number of service dogs that can somehow detect a drop in blood sugar and alert their human partners.
The dogs can be a godsend because sometimes diabetics can develop what’s known as “hypoglycemic unawareness,” in which they do not get the warning signs that their blood sugar is dropping too low, such as shaking, sweating or seizures
Using service dogs for diabetics is a relatively new concept, but one that’s gathering steam, according to Mark Ruefenacht, a forensic scientist who founded Dogs for Diabetics in Concord, Calif.
Toni Eames, president of the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners, said there are more than 30,000 medical assistance dogs in the nation, and a small percentage of them are diabetic alert dogs. The demand for these dogs continues to rise.
“I’ve been doing this for about 10 years now, and the demand has been going up each year as people learn about it,” said Lily Grace, CEO of the National Institute for Diabetic Alert Dogs, a for-profit training facility in Cottonwood. “Before they were trained specifically to do this, there have forever been dogs who would spontaneously alert for this.”
The diabetic dogs also prove that the animals may be able to be of use to humans suffering from other kinds of diseases.
“I believe there are many diseases that can be mitigated through the use of a dog,” Ruefenacht said. “I think we’ve just scratched the surface.”
In Malachi’s case, he is trained to alert Tello when her blood glucose levels drop to a dangerously low level, which tends to happen when insulin-dependent diabetics are asleep.
“It’s called ‘dead in bed,’ ” Tello said.
Another diabetes dog, Sadie, is a yellow Labrador retriever who lives in Oxnard with Jay and Sandy Zatz, both 59. Sandy was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in 1981 after giving birth to her first son. A subsequent pancreatic disease required that she go on insulin.
Jay trained Sadie himself after researching training methods on the Internet. He used pineapple, which mimics the scent of Sandy’s breath when she’s in trouble. He placed several containers of different foods around Sadie and rewarded her when she pawed at him upon smelling the pineapple scent.
From what’s exhaled, the dogs smell something that’s in the blood. Pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Dana Hardin of Eli Lilly & Co. in Indianapolis is trying to isolate exactly what they are smelling. Hardin said humans have about 5 million olfactory cells, compared with about 220 million in a dog.
“They are pack animals. They want to please,” Hardin said. “You use those wonderful, wonderful traits.”
Tello got Malachi from a private training facility in Arroyo Grande called Doggie Do Good, which is headed by Sandy Sandberg. Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers and Labradoodles tend to be the best diabetic alert dogs, Sandberg said.
“We make sure they have a good temperament, they’re an easygoing dog, a ‘how can I please you?’ kind of dog,” she said. “It must love people, want attention and want to bond with one person.”
Dogs for Diabetics is developing standards to help consumers, and people can check to see if a training facility is listed with the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners.