Elly Graham is the proud owner of OsKar, who can take credit for being the UK’s first Hypo Awareness Dog. Elly has had diabetes for 26 years, having been diagnosed as Type 1 when she was 13 years old.
OsKar became her pet six years ago, but only afterwards was he trained by Emergency Response Dogs to become aware of Elly’s symptoms when she became hypoglycaemic, being able to alert her to changes in her body should she not feel the symptoms herself.
Says Elly, “For a while, I lost all sensitively to feeling a hypo coming on. It was very scary as I live on my own and I would be fine, then suddenly become unconscious. I just didn’t get any warning. I already had OsKar and I talked to the trainers to see if they could use us as a ‘pilot scheme’. Elly’s request was the first they’d had to look at training a dog for a person with diabetes, but since it was so successful there are now similarly trained dogs who all started out as rescue dogs from kennels. Emergency Response Dogs, based in Sheffield, train the animals to sense changes in patients who have diabetes or other medical conditions which can cause a person to be vulnerable out and about or at home, as well as to offer emotional support to people with agoraphobia or post traumatic stress disorder..
According to Elly, “OsKar can pick up on things before I do, although my hypo symptoms have improved considerably since having OsKar trained, as I now have better control. I’m not passing out, so my sugars aren’t dropping so low. He can tell because there are slight changes in perspiration, breathing patterns and in muscle tension as I go into a hypo. He can tell me when I go under 5mmols. That gives me time to avert a hypo. He does this at night by pulling off my duvet!”
As part of OsKar’s training, Emergency Response Dogs taught him to see changes in Elly’s behaviour. Elly was videoed for two months as part of this, and when she had a hypo they could wind the tape back to show OsKar how her behaviour changed, showing him how to spot signs of a hypo (which humans are usually unable to detect) and teach him the appropriate action to reduce the risks to Elly.
Prior to OsKar’s intervention, Elly’s HBA1Cs were hovering around 11mmols, but she’s now just under 8mmols. That in itself is another huge benefit, although most of us with diabetes must be glad not to be having such dangerous hypos.
For the last two years, Elly has been on an insulin pump and says, “The pump has also helped me gain better control, but at first is was really tricky. There was about a six-month adjustment period, after which I was using 50% less insulin. OsKar’s training had to be tweaked when I went on the pump, as I can sleep through the pump beeping, but OsKar will wake me up if necessary.
In total, it took 12 months to train OsKar at a cost of £5,000. Any ‘hypo dog’ would need to be trained with the person as each dog has bespoke training to that individual, whose hypo signs and timings will be unique. Elly adds, “OsKar and I went to Crufts and did various other profile-raising events in order to get funds for his training.”
Shirley Lumley, Emergency Response Dog Trainer, told us, “Emergency Response Dogs mission is to enhance safety,security and independence for people with limited mobility and other complex medical conditions, such as diabetes,by training dogs to provide both emotional and physical support. Our vision is to meet the needs of all people whose lives and safety can be improved by an Emergency Response Dog. An Emergency Response dog gives a client support and confidence, helping them to lead a fulfilling and independent life.”
Next year is the Year of the Assistance Dog, so you may read more about Elly and OsKar yet!