One of the greatest dangers that Type 1 diabetics face, Mark Ruefenacht was saying, is the inability to recognize the onset of hypoglycemia. The sudden drop in blood-sugar level can lead to coma and even death.
It was because he fell prey to just such a condition 14 years ago, momentarily lapsing into an incoherent state, that he hit upon an idea that some will find hard to believe: Dogs can be taught to help diabetics.
It was Ruefenacht's puppy, Benton, aggressively nudging his master to consciousness, that gave birth to Dogs for Diabetics, a Concord-based nonprofit that trains and places canines who can identify hypoglycemia and alert their owners to their condition.
It seems Benton was merely reacting to his owner's distress, but that opened Ruefenacht's eyes to greater possibilities. His background in forensics led him to believe that every illness in the human body produces a distinctive smell in perspiration and breath because of chemical compositions produced by the reaction of internal organs.
Who better to recognize a scent than man's best friend?
After five years of research and experiments, Dogs for Diabetics was founded in 2004, and Ruefenacht, who serves as president, saw his vision become reality.
"We can train other breeds to identify the scent," said Executive Director Ralph Hendrix, "but we use Labrador and golden retrievers because they are trained by Guide Dogs for the Blind and Canines for Independence as assistance dogs. They only place about 40 to 50 percent of the dogs they raise, so they donate dogs to us that aren't suitable for their program."
By the time they arrive at Dogs for Diabetics, which is funded by donations and enlists about 100 volunteers, the dogs have undergone at least 18 months of training and are valued at $25,000 apiece. They then undergo another four months or more of scent and medical-alert training (the low-blood-sugar "scent" is captured in gauze bandages).
When a dog recognizes the scent -- dogs are quicker than glucometers in detecting low blood sugar -- it grabs its bringsel (a flat strip hanging from its collar) in its mouth and shows its owner.
"We have to change some of their behaviors," Hendrix said. "Guide dogs are taught not to use their noses. We want them to be nosey. We also ingrain in them what we call intelligent disobedience."
That means dogs are persistent in alerting owners, even when owners don't want to be alerted. ("Diabetics often insist they're fine, even when they're not," Hendrix said.) Even though the dogs are trained not to jump onto beds, they will violate that rule to alert someone with low blood sugar.
Dogs for Diabetics recently achieved what's thought to be a first when it cross-trained a Labrador retriever to work as a guide dog and also recognize low blood sugar. It was presented to Maile George, of Concord, and the dog wears a bringsel that squeaks when bitten.
The organization has placed about 100 canines in its nine years. The only demand of applicants is they partake in 130 hours of training and chart the dog's performance for six months. A $150 fee covers application and educational materials.
"The demand is huge," Hendrix said. "We get about 100 inquiries for every dog we have. Our clients range from 12 years old and up."
Ruefenacht smiled at how his brainstorm has evolved. It wasn't so long ago that Benton was nudging him awake.
Contact Tom Barnidge at email@example.com.