Diabetes

True Life: I Have a Diabetic Alert Dog (Part 2)

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Meet Matt Tarro! Also known as @the__drop. Matt's a super awesome superhuman. He also has type 1 diabetes and a DAD (Diabetic Alert Dog), Forest, that sniffs out his lows. Here's Part 2 in Matt's story of life with his best friend.

In case you didn't catch Part 1 of our story, I'm Matt! And Forest is my DAD (Diabetic Alert Dog). 

What Forest Does

He's able to smell a chemical change in my body that I cannot feel and will alert me when it happens.

Hypo-unawareness is the reason behind all of this. In short, it's lacking the ability to sense dangerous low blood sugars and it's something I've struggled with for a long time.

I wasn't always, but I'm now very conscious of my blood sugar every hour of every day by using a Continuous Glucose Monitor (CGM) and blood glucose meter (BGM).

I use both a One Drop meter test kit and my CGM as part of my daily routine since Forest can't tell me trends, or my exact glucose level. He will, however, alert me AHEAD of the CGM a lot of times. His body language and eyes say it all.

He'll lock eyes with me and I can sense his willingness to tell me something...


"HEY DAD!! I CAN SMELL THAT THING YOU TOLD ME TO SMELL!!"


That thing is a chemical called Isoprene. All humans release it when they exhale. (More semi-related studies on this chemical here, here, and here.)

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Forest uses his front paws to alert me of a low; he places them on my leg, arm, or side, depending on where we are and what we're doing.

It's silent and only takes a second, but sometimes it's also soft and gentle because he understands our environment and the need to be so.

Every time his paw touches my body or he nudges me in response to that chemical rising or dropping, he receives a treat. Usually salmon treats. Or peanut butter, his favorite. Every paw means another treat.

When we're in public, we draw a lot of attention! This act is seen by many people every week while we continue to train on his public access and scent detection.

How Does He Do It? 

Forest was trained by the team over at Diabetic Alert Dogs of America.

The dogs trained by this company spend 6-8 months in the program going through three courses over that time.

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First is basic obedience, which is the typical commands for any well-mannered dog. Second is public access, allowing for the dog to stay focused on the handler in high-traffic environments (this very much comes in to play further down the line). The last bit of this process is the most difficult for the dog: scent detection

Whenever Forest smells his target, he gives an alert!

Throughout his training, I received email, photo, and video updates each week with his progress and growth. Once he was delivered, he alerted within 15 minutes of meeting me! My blood was running high after a pump-site failure and he knew right away.

The look on his face when he realized that the faint smell from cotton balls was actually coming from me was priceless. We had both come so far to get there. But our real work was just beginning.

Understanding This Specific Relationship

Everywhere you go, your dog is likely going with you.

The first few years of training take a lot of time and patience, practice, and failure. Sometimes, it's not necessary for your dog to be by your side. You're able to make that decision when you've achieved trust with your teammate and can safely navigate without them.

For example, it may be hard to tell everyone to not pet your dog when you go inside an establishment (like a bar on a busy night).

If you're an adult and you chose to have a night out and would like to leave the dog at home, that's OK!

Just be mindful of two things:

  1. Your medical needs 
  2. Leaving your DAD alone for too long (no more than 4 hours at any time)

Working dogs are trained to work with a specific handler, on a single specific task. This is why the ADA provides safe access laws for individuals working with dogs.

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Here's an overview of what's happening right now in society as it pertains to these laws and how people perceive them. ⬇️

Legality & Current Public Perception of DADs

There are only two questions that an establishment is allowed to ask when I enter their premises with Forest.

The second question is what individuals with emotional support dogs cannot answer, as their animal hasn't been trained to do anything specifically, or at all, most of the time. People use this excuse as a way to gain entry wherever they would like and it happens daily.

Most places don't ask these questions. Or, if they ask anything at all, they inquisitively say "Service Dog?"

This allows for everyone to walk into stores with their untrained animals.

If you work in a store or in retail, make sure you ask these questions accurately. When you ask someone who cannot answer the second question, I'd like for you to think about this next section!

Question 1: Is the dog required because of a disability?

Answer: Yes.

*I don't have to say what my disability is, although it says on his vest and I literally wear my devices on my arm.. but I usually state that I'm a type 1 diabetic.

Question 2: What specific task is dog trained to perform?

Answer: Medical Alerts.

*Sometimes I'll even restate "type 1 diabetes medical alerts." 

Working dogs are trained to work with a specific handler, on a single specific task.

That one task earns them rewards from the handler.

Generally, people don't even ask before making eye contact and then verbal contact with my working dog; both actions are against the law.

I could write a whole book on that, but it's where I'll leave you today.

There is definitely an overall lack of understanding that this dog needs to have its attention on me at all times. People put their hands on Forest every single day without a moment's hesitation. 

Petting a dog is a form of rewarding an animal, regardless of if you look at it that way. It's how the dog views that action.

This means they can and will pick up on outsiders' infringing on the fragile relationship that takes time and effort to build.

What about other relationships? How does that work, when I have a dog attached at the hip? 

Luckily, I don't have to go through awkward conversations about type 1 or how a DAD works, since my girlfriend, Jenna, is also T1D.

Forest has been training with her as well! I've loved watching their relationship grow. When the 3 of us are together, Forest will alert us both with remarkable accuracy. 

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On the Road Again (& Beyond)

I'll continue enjoying long car-camping trips with Forest. He's helped me so many times while on the road, where I'm driving and he'll alert me.

My CGM will say I'm good; before I know it, my blood is low (or high). I'm way beyond blessed to work with him.

I hope to help inspire anyone with a dog, diabetes, and/or depression. There are ways to shed sadness and I personally believe working with a dog has helped not only my type 1 diabetes management, but also my positive outlook on life. 

We've traveled almost 30,000 miles in the last year-and-a-half around the Pacific Northwest. We've camped 50+ nights, gone to a dozen National Parks, and educated everyone we meet along the way.

Typically, in a park setting, I'll set up my time-lapse camera and, while park patrons walk around us, conversations quickly turn to type 1 diabetes. 

Forest and I LOVE meeting and inspiring type 1's everywhere we go. To give you an idea of the places we've been and who we've met: 

✈️ We've flown back and forth across the country 10x; Forest sits at my feet!

⚾️ Attended the final game in the Red Sox World Series win in Los Angeles

🏀 Attended an LA Kings game, PC Basketball game, and LA Nightclub (for a Beyond Type 1 event)

🏂 Attended 2 Riding on Insulin snowboard camps, although, Forest was VERY cold (he has a jacket!)

🏃‍♂️ Crew members for the Diabetic Sports Team 82 mile Salton Sea - Badwater Ultra Marathon team

🎟 ComplexCon two-day convention with 30,000+ people (met 3 T1Ds over the two days!)

Forest and I love getting out, trying new things, adventuring, and meeting fellow people with diabetes.

We'd love to come to your community to paint and help spread awareness, education, and motivation! We're always looking to help others, and would love it if you reached out to us. 

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Mary Elizabeth Adams
Jun 24, 2019

Additional Reading

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