Dog Whisperer: Mark Ruefenacht
Training dogs to alert people with diabetes to low blood glucose
Mark Ruefenacht’s plan for Dogs for Diabetics arrived through a series of unfortunate events. His aunt went blind from diabetes at a young age. Then, at age 28, Ruefenacht developed type 1. He devoted his free time to Guide Dogs for the Blind’s puppy-raising program, knowing that someday the organization might serve him. During that time, while traveling with a guide dog named Armstrong, Ruefenacht had such a severe low that he had a seizure.
Ruefenacht used that emergency to his advantage. After all, Armstrong had roused him despite having no training in hypoglycemia alerts. Maybe, Ruefenacht thought, dogs could detect lows through scent on the breath. As a forensic scientist, he was familiar with dogs’ abilities to sniff out drugs, alcohol, firearms, and bombs—something he currently teaches federal and state law-enforcement agencies about.
Before he started the nonprofit Dogs for Diabetics, based in Concord, Calif., where he lives, Ruefenacht dove into research (self-funded for the first five years) on the science of breath. He used sweat and breath from people with diabetes who had either normal or low blood glucose to train the dogs in what he calls scent discrimination—similar to how trainers teach dogs to recognize the scent of drugs or explosives. The dogs aren’t detecting lows per se but chemical changes the body goes through when blood glucose is dropping.
Now the organization uses service-trained dogs from Guide Dogs for the Blind, trains them to recognize hypoglycemia, and matches them with human companions. After that, it takes about six months to train a dog to recognize its owner’s hypoglycemia and alert the owner when his or her blood glucose dips too low. The organization follows up with clients on a monthly basis for as long as they keep a dog.
Though Ruefenacht, 52, remains a forensic scientist by profession, his life outside work revolves around dogs, including his own hypoglycemia alert dog, Danielle, who took over after Armstrong died last year. He’s the supervisor of the puppy-training program at Guide Dogs for the Blind and president of Dogs for Diabetics. “My day job … is wonderful and pays the bills,” he says. “But my ‘night’ job, volunteering with Dogs for Diabetics and Guide Dogs for the Blind, pays the soul.”
Learn more about hypoglycemia alert dogs at dogs4diabetics.com.