LIFE-SAVER: Holly, a Husky, is the second diabetic alert dog trained so far in SA by Lucy Breytenbach, who moved here from the UK. Holly was trained intensively for eight months.Pictures: Cindy Waxa/African News Agency/ANA
Dogs are known as man’s best friend and a Cape Town trainer is now turning their loyalty and great sense of smell to advantage by teaching them to monitor patients with chronic medical conditions and alert them when their life is in danger.

Cape Town rescue dog Holly is the second medical alert dog to be trained in the country by Lucy Breytenbach, a canine behaviour practitioner from Sunningdale and founder of Medical Alert Dogs SA and Just Dogs Behaviour.

Medical Alert Dogs SA trains dogs for people with Type 1 diabetes, epilepsy and trauma.

The 10-month-old white Husky, who recently moved to Joburg to assist Lize Marais, a teenager with Type 1 diabetes, was trained to recognise behaviour and odour changes when Marais’ blood sugar is low and alert her before she becomes hypoglycaemic.

Low blood sugar levels (hypoglycaemia) is an acute daily problem for people with diabetes and can result in life-threatening situations such as seizures, confusion and diabetic coma.

When blood sugar level drops without any warning, it has a dramatic effect on the lives of both the diabetic and their family.

Breytenbach, who moved to South Africa from the UK several years ago and found there were no medical alert dogs here, said dogs don’t only provide emotional support to humans, their superior sense of smell makes them able to pick up life-threatening conditions if they are trained well.

With 10 years of dog-training experience, Breytenbach trained the country’s first diabetic assistance dog, Honey, two years ago to assist Duncan Smuts from West Beach, who also has Type 1 diabetes.

Currently Breytenbach has 14 dogs in training, mostly diabetic alert dogs, two epilepsy dogs and trauma alert dogs.

“Training a diabetic alert dog is an intensive process which can take eight to 18 months, depending on the animal’s age and aptitude. It’s not cheap, the cost of training time, food, veterinary bills, flea control and sterilisation all adds up.

“Finding the right dog is the starting point. Out of every 10 dogs I assess only one or two is suitable for this type of work,” she said.

The ideal dog will prefer people to other canines, is willing to learn and keen to work, has a fantastic sense of smell and the intelligence to think independently and make decisions.

The diabetic alert dogs are trained to paw or nudge their handler when they sense a change in blood sugar. In the eventuality that the person isn’t able to react, the dog has to decide what to do to get help.

Holly, who was homeless after being dumped in Sunningdale, has been undergoing training for the past eight months.

Lize, who recently came to Cape Town from Joburg for bonding sessions with Holly, said the diabetes assistance dog would help her live a normal life.

The 15-year-old, who fell into a coma before her first birthday, said living with Type 1 diabetes is stressful.

“You have to control your blood sugar and it’s not easy. I’ve had many hypoglycaemic events.

“My first severe hypo was in 2015. I went to bed with normal blood sugar, had a fit, lost consciousness and woke up in hospital.

“Having a dog that is going to paw or bump me when my sugar is low will mean I won’t be scared to go to sleep anymore. I’ll have tighter control of my blood sugar,” she said.

Lize will take Holly everywhere she goes, including to school, shopping malls, movies and church. Hollly will even accompany her when she goes to play hockey, her favourite sport.

“Holly’s sense of smell is so strong that she can smell my scent from the side of the hockey field. I can’t wait to start my new life with her,” she said.

Her mother, Lizelle Marais, said having Holly at home would also give her peace of mind.

“If you are the parent of a Type 1 diabetic child you know you are not going to sleep through the night ever again. You get up and test them, you worry constantly about whether they will wake up the next morning.

“Lize has now had several serious hypoglycaemic events, one of which was when she was sleeping. Ever since the 2015 incident she has had problems sleeping... she became very scared of falling asleep, and the sleep deprivation has not been good for her.”

Even though Lize was fairly stable for the first 13 years, small things like the weather or stress can affect sugar levels. Since reaching her teens, it’s been even harder, with growth spurts and hormones playing a role.

Currently 60 families have applied for medical alert dogs, but many are unable to afford the R50000 they each cost. “We’re looking for sponsors and corporate partners to assist,” Breytenbach said.