Cape Town, 14 November 2016: Twelve-year-old Duncan was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the tender age of three. He is currently in Grade six, lives in Cape Town with his family and, like many other teenagers, Duncan’s best friend is his dog, Honey. But Honey is no ordinary dog. She could one day save his life.
Honey is in the process of being certified as the first official Medical Alert Dog to be trained in South Africa, specifically, to assist Duncan in managing his complex health condition. Some of the ways the dog does this is by identifying the scent changes that are associated with life-threatening medical events such as low blood sugar levels which have been a real struggle for his parents to date. To date, Honey has already woken Duncan up once due to a drop in his sugar levels and, with more training, her ability to detect the smell of a hypoglycaemic episode, will become stronger and more reliable.
“We first tried to get a Medical Alert Dog for our son from overseas but realised it would cost in excess of R100k, so we looked into local trainers and sought a sponsorship to train our dog. With the help of funding from Sanlam we could invest in Honey’s training. It was the start of a new journey for Duncan and our family,” says Greg Smuts, Duncan’s father.
Commenting on the training process and progress to date, Lucy Breytenbach who is a behaviour practitioner with a BSc (Hons) degree in Animal Science, Behaviour and Welfare and the dog’s trainer, says that: “Duncan and I work very closely together and train Honey in scent work every day. Duncan does a lot of the practice work himself with the amazing support from his family and does a fantastic job! I work with them to monitor progress and help them with any problems they may have.”
“These incredible dogs have been assisting people physically and psychologically all over the world, and with great success. Dogs have been proven to reduce stress and anxiety, and give people a new lease on life. With the added ability of detecting changes in blood glucose levels, the possibilities are endless! I cannot wait for them to make a real difference to the lives of South African diabetic children and adults.”
According to the international Diabetes Federation (IDF), there were 2.28 million cases of diabetes in South Africa in 2015 alone, but for every diagnosed adult, there is one undiagnosed adult and the number of undiagnosed cases is estimated at around 1.39 million individuals. Unfortunately, undiagnosed people face a higher risk of developing harmful and costly complications.
South Africa currently spends an average of US$918.9 (R 12 420) on healthcare costs for each person living with diabetes and is one of many middle and low-income countries with higher diabetes prevalence in people under 60 compared to the world average.
“There is a growing burden on the economy to manage diabetes, and we need innovative methods aimed at controlling the disease and raising awareness. Medical alert dogs will raise public awareness, and offer diabetics medical and emotional support, as well as greater freedom of movement, because the dog becomes an extension of the individual,” says Dr Morkel, a Sanlam Medical Advisor.
She adds that simple things like school outings, sports participation, attending birthday parties or sleepovers with friends are often a challenge for diabetic children who require regular insulin injections or whose blood glucose needs to be checked every few hours. She says it is likely that such children will experience a medic alert dog as a companion rather than another guardian attempting to control their lifestyle or social activities.
“Honey was our family’s very first dog. Since then, and from watching how well our children have taken to her, we have bought another dog for our youngest son. We do however face many challenges as this concept is still quite new in South Africa, but we are hoping that through Honey’s example, we will encourage other families to consider this additional assistance,” says Jennyanne Smuts, Duncan’s mother.
The use of medical alert dogs to help in the management of diabetes is in line with the IDF’s long term goals of getting better at managing the disease and to provide support for those with diabetes – not least to eradicate prejudices towards these individuals. Dr Morkel warns that there are also other long term risk management considerations that people need to be aware of and shared the following advice for those who are considering risk cover:
- Insurers will look at someone’s insulin-dependency level and assess the risk on an individual basis;
- Individuals who need continuous monitoring can secure risk cover if their diabetes is optimally under control. Where this is not the case, an insurer may decide to defer issuing cover while providing the doctor who treats the person with guidelines detailing the desired level of disease control required in order to provide cover to that person.
Duncan’s parents share the following tips for parents considering a medic assist dog for their children:
- It is best to get the dog from early diagnosis, not necessarily when things start to get bad;
- Always consider the high level of responsibility on the child and family before selecting to go this route. The child needs to be at an age where he or she can take responsibility for the dog;
- Ensure that the type of dog you get will be compatible with your family’s lifestyle and that it has already received all the necessary training;
- Find out upfront from the child’s school if they will be welcoming of the dog;
- As this concept is still new in SA, chances are you’ll need to commission a specialised trainer which can make this quite an expensive exercise;
- Although the dogs assist, they are neither a guarantee nor a permanent solution to the problem – effort and time to manage the child’s diabetes is still needed from the family.
Commenting on his relationship with the dog, Duncan says that: “I never thought I would share such a strong bond with a dog before Honey. She has become my best friend and a great help to me and my family. I can’t remember how life was without her.”