The dog that helps its owner cope with diabetes
- Credit: Archant
A dog’s amazing sense of smell has transformed the life of a man whose survival was threatened by diabetes. Emily Rothery reports
Shortly after I have been warmly welcomed into the home of Chris Gardner, his Labrador, Jade, leaves her bed and places her paws firmly on his shoulders. To most people, Jade’s actions could be taken as show of affection but 32-year-old Chris knows that her response could save his life.
Chris has unstable Brittle Type 1 diabetes which means that his blood sugar levels can rapidly fluctuate or become dangerously low. Without Jade’s constant vigilance, Chris may not be aware of the changes which bring the daily risk of a coma and other life-threatening complications.
Jade is a Medical Alert Assistance dog and she has been trained to use her amazing sense of smell to detect changes in Chris’s breath prior to an emergency, allowing Chris to take preventative action to stabilise his blood sugar levels.
‘Jade has absolutely transformed my life,’ said Chris, who lives in Clifton, just north of Salford. ‘I wasn’t aware that I had diabetes until ten years ago when I collapsed at work. I was a hospital porter when suddenly I saw the trolley going off down the corridor.
‘My last thought was “There goes the trolley but I’m not attached to it” and shortly afterwards I blacked out. At least I was in the best place as I worked in A & E,’ laughs Chris who has kept a sense of humour despite the medical challenges.
His life changed drastically. ‘To be honest, it ruined my life. I used to be extremely active – I loved going out and played football, basketball and ice hockey. After being diagnosed I was medically retired and for six years I couldn’t be left on my own.
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‘Before Jade I didn’t want to go out as I had no warning signs before passing out. Just a trip to the shops would involve sitting down every five minutes to check my sugar level. It was awful.’
As we chat Jade alerts Chris for a second time. Her timing is spot-on and enables Chris to take his blood sugar reading from a monitor that is attached to his phone app and then adjust his insulin from the pump he has to wear 24 hours a day.
Jade, having placed her paws on Chris’s lap to alert him, sits back and watches him until she is rewarded with a treat or her favourite toy.
‘She gets treats but praise is enough reward for her. She really is amazing - we don’t even need to be in the same room. I can be upstairs or in the garden and she can still pick up the changes in my breath. I can clean my teeth and use mouth wash or eat the strongest curry and she will still alert me.
‘She will wake me at night or if I black out she will alert my wife, Sam, and we are now in the process of having her trained to press a panic button.’
Jade is a firm favourite with Chris’s family, too. ‘Sam has had a huge weight taken off her shoulders and my son Jayden, who is five, absolutely adores her. I’m just so happy to be able to play football with Jayden now, which I couldn’t do before.’
Chris and Sam tracked down the charity Medical Detection Dogs on the internet. ‘We were so excited when we found that we could apply for a diabetes alert dog and applied immediately. We were eventually invited to the centre in Milton Keynes to meet three potential dogs.
The charity works on the principle that the dog has to choose you and I was really disappointed when the first two paid little attention to me. The last was Jade. She came bounding through the door, lay down at my feet and stayed there until the interview was over,’ says Chris.
‘She came for a couple of weeks’ home stay and then she returned to the centre for training which involved using samples of my breath which I had previously frozen. Once she was tuned into my scent we went to stay at the centre for a week to complete the process and check that we were working well together.’
Chris carries an identity card for Jade when they go out and she wears a distinctive red jacket. ‘When she is on duty she knows has she has to abide by the rules. If anything, she becomes a little more showy and people are interested in her so now I have to add two hours on to every journey!’
Sam explains: ‘Through Jade, Chris is gaining confidence and independence but we are just building things up gradually so that Chris can be left on his own for a bit longer or go a little further. She’s so tuned in to him. We can now plan outings and holidays without worry. We’re planning to go abroad so we will need to get Jade a doggy passport,’
Chris added: ‘I owe so much to her. I have a test every few months that gives me a rough idea of how my blood sugar levels have been acting. Before Jade they were right at the top at 99 which is danger level. Now they’ve dropped significantly because her alerts are helping me to respond to my body’s needs.
‘I can’t put enough words together to say thank you to the charity so now, for us, it’s all about giving something back. Sam has become the volunteer regional coordinator for the north west and is busy setting up fundraising and awareness days.’
The charity Medical Detection Dogs trains dogs to detect the odour of human disease. It is at the forefront of the research into the fight against cancer and helping people with life-threatening diseases.
Their bio detection dogs are trained to find the odour of diseases, such as cancer, in samples such as urine, breath and swabs. The dogs are trained to detect minute changes in an individual’s personal odour triggered by their disease and alert them to an impending problems. They get no government support and rely entirely on donations. To find out more go to www.medicaldetectiondogs.org.uk