Ada is a dog with a very unusual, life-saving skill: warning her diabetic owner that her blood glucose levels are getting dangerously low or high.
All dogs are good dogs, but Ada is a very special dog. The seven-year-old husky is New Zealand’s first Diabetic Response Dog.
Ada’s owner Vicki Parry was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at seven years old, but she never dreamed she might one day have a dog who could help her with her illness.
When she bought Ada, the chubbiest husky in the litter, it was simply because her husband Simon really wanted a husky.
“We didn’t get Ada with the intention of her becoming a Medical Response Dog — we hadn’t planned for her to be anything other than a family pet! After growing up with a gorgeous black Labrador I had been wanting to get a dog,” Vicki says.
A chance meeting after her dog obedience class with dog behaviourist and trainer Flip Calkoen who, at the time, was Head Trainer for a charitable foundation that was looking at training Diabetic Response Dogs (DRDs), changed everything.
“Flip suggested we train Ada to become a DRD as she had the right sort of qualities for an Assistance Dog. She had a really good work ethic and temperament and she and I worked well together. It was first required that Ada pass the Canine Good Citizen foundation-level test before beginning any DRD training. She passed this and CGC Bronze easily. We obviously said yes to the opportunity to train Ada further.”
Nobody could believe just how much Ada would take to her classes. Her skills are quite frankly, unbelievable.
The fear of so many people with type 1 diabetes is that they might go into a diabetic coma. Monitoring your blood glucose levels to ensure they’re not too high or low is crucial; treatment with insulin or glucose are needed. Were someone to fall into a diabetic coma, they could die.
Low and high blood sugar levels release chemicals in the body that have a distinct odour that is undetectable by humans but apparent to dogs who’ve been trained to detect it. Ada can sense when Vicki’s blood glucose levels are changing up to 45 minutes ahead of time. She signals to Vicki and will even bring Vicki’s diabetes kit to her. She will also alert someone else if Vicki doesn’t answer. She’s a life-saver.
“Ada has changed my life more than I anticipated. I have always been fortunate to have good control of my diabetes and be somewhat aware if my blood sugars were going too high or too low – potentially resulting in a diabetic coma if not detected, and ultimately death. Because of Ada, my control has become particularly tight. I no longer have typical diabetic blood-sugar peaks and troughs, as Ada has the ability to detect changes in my blood sugars up to 45 minutes prior to the change taking place.”
In public, if Ada senses a change in Vicki’s levels she will give a firm nudge and hold with her nose onto Vicki’s body. Vicki chose this way of alerting her. “I didn’t think that a bark would be a good option for her indication as I work in an open-plan office environment,” she says.
Vicki has also trained Ada to bring her blood testing equipment when it’s needed. “She knows she is allowed to get this from anywhere whether it’s on the bench, or in my bag and that she is allowed to break any command she may be carrying out if she believes she needs to indicate. She knows that putting her paws on the bench, bed or sofa, or rummaging through a bag, is not otherwise allowed. Ada will also open our kitchen cupboard and bring me a small container with some lollies in it in case I am unable to get to food.”
Ada is very persistent. She knows it could be life or death.
“If I don’t respond to her she will keep indicating – the nudges can be very firm! She will seek out another person and take my blood sugar testing gear to them if I do not respond. Ada knows that when indicating she is allowed to jump on the bed or sofa if she can’t get a response from me and she feels she needs to be more forceful.”
She knows Ada knows exactly when to alert. “Often, when Ada indicates that my blood sugars are getting outside the target range and I test my blood sugars, they will look good to me. However, I have learnt to trust her senses — when I then monitor myself closely I will find that a short time later my blood sugars will start to either trend up or down.”
Trust has been an ongoing exercise for both of them. They key to training a dog to do such important work is giving it your all, and your dog believing you are everything to them.
“It has been an interesting experience learning to trust in your dog,” Vicki says.
“Once Ada began indicating, I had to learn that I was now handing some of my medical control over to her. I was so used to being the only one who really knew my diabetes, so giving some of that sense of responsibility over to her took a shift in mind-set for me.”
Even during her complicated pregnancy with her son Ada was there for Vicki every step of the way.
“My pregnancy was pretty touch-and-go for our son and me,” Vicki says.
“While I was pregnant Ada was particularly watchful over me which resulted in my blood sugar control being so good that it highly impressed the specialist medical staff that were looking after my pregnancy. I believe that because of Ada’s skills, my body did not have any additional stress on it and that it helped our son survive the pregnancy.”
Now her son is here, Ada has another life-long friend.
“Ada is very maternal. Her bond with our son is beautiful to watch develop. They are the best of friends and Zain will read to her, play with her, give her his most prized possessions, and already knows her commands.”
If all of this wasn’t enough to label Ada the goodest of dogs, she also volunteers with Outreach Therapy Pets at Starship Hospital.
“I feel very blessed to have Ada in my life and hope that she can help others as much as she has helped me.”
The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.
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