Honey in training to have nose for sugar

PIONEERING TEAM: Dog trainer Carien Meyer with Honey, the golden retriever she is training to be a diabetic alert dog, used to detect low blood-sugar levels in diabetes patients. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER
PIONEERING TEAM: Dog trainer Carien Meyer with Honey, the golden retriever she is training to be a diabetic alert dog, used to detect low blood-sugar levels in diabetes patients. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER

HONEY, a 16-month-old golden retriever, is making history as the first dog in South Africa being trained to detect low blood-sugar levels in diabetic people.

If all goes according to plan, Duncan Smuts, 11, will soon have Honey by his side – even at school – so she can warn him if his blood sugar level has dropped and he needs help.

Duncan has type one diabetes and his blood sugar has to be checked every two hours, even during the night.

His father, Greg, inquired a while ago about dogs that assist with diabetes but was told they had to be imported and this was extremely expensive.

“I tried to find a trainer in South Africa but there wasn’t anyone,” Smuts said.

The family eventually approached Cape Town trainer Carien Meyer, who agreed to help.

“I was lucky because an online course became available at the right time,” she said, and after finding Honey and putting her through a rigorous suitability test, the journey began.

“I use Duncan’s saliva, which is collected . . . when his blood sugar is high or low so there is a difference in smell. Eventually, Honey will detect from his breath if he needs help.”

Using positive reinforcement, Meyer is training Honey to not just detect a problem, but act on it too.

Duncan said he was very excited about the training.

A researcher on dogs and diabetes at Dalhousie University in Canada, Catherine Reeve, said: “This, along with cancer detection dogs and medical detection in general, is just becoming a field of research. It is very promising.”

-Tanya Farber

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