Dogs with a Job: Diabetes Warning Dogs – When the Dog’s Snout Saves Lives

Dogs with a Job: Diabetes Warning Dogs – When the Dog’s Snout Saves Lives

One thing is certain: a dog can quickly detect changes in body odour and also in human behaviour. If a diabetes patient has a sugar derailment (to a low or high degree), unconsciousness or death can follow. Diabetes warning dogs are trained to recognise the signs and help in many different ways.

It has not yet been scientifically proven, but it seems clear: Many people have already seen a dog recognise and respond to certain signs of the disease. And if the nose is particularly well trained, it sounds plausible that the dog can be educated to perform certain actions when it smells specific odours.

The sugar lump in the swimming pool

Why can the dog do that? A dog’s nose can smell exceptionally well. This is because dogs have between 100 and 300 million olfactory cells in their mucosa – whereas humans have only 10 million. These olfactory cells are distributed over 170 cm2, whereas in humans it is only 10 cm2. This means that a dog, when trained to do so, can smell whether a sugar cube has been dissolved in a swimming pool or not.

The dog can even smell “stereo”, i.e. sniff separate information in each nostril, such as the urine of a conspecific, its sex, whether the buddy is sick or healthy and from which direction it came.

What is diabetes?

What is commonly known as diabetes is a deficiency in the hormone insulin. Insulin is needed to break down the sugar in the blood that is absorbed through food. Without insulin, the blood sugar level rises, so diabetes patients have to inject insulin for life. If too much insulin is injected, this can lead to hypoglycaemia. A lack of insulin is the case in patients with type 1 diabetes, while type 2 patients develop a kind of “insulin resistance” of body cells or “exhaustion” of the insulin-producing cells over the course of their lives. The consequence is the same, insulin must be injected unless a fundamental change in diet and lifestyle helps.

Things, the nose can be trained to

The diabetes warning dog learns something really amazing: When the blood sugar level fluctuates, messenger substances are emitted, so-called neurotransmitters. This leads to changes in breathing and sweat.

The dog can recognise these changes in body odour if it has been trained to do so. It learns to check the body odour of an owner/patient with his nose. If he notices a rapid rise or fall in blood sugar due to breathing or sweat, the dog will react and alert the owner by means of certain agreed signals.

Even more surprisingly, the dog also can be trained that it does not need to sound the alarm if the blood glucose level is stable. It is trained to detect extreme fluctuations in blood glucose levels and then warn the patient before becoming umconscious.

What to do in an emergency?

The dog can be trained to stay calm, even if the emergency occurs. Diabetes warning dogs are not overwhelmed, but on the spot: they are educated to bring a bottle of a sugary drink in the event of hypoglycaemia, for example, or, to press a certain alarm button in the home and call for help. In some cases, the dog can detect a beginning derailment of the blood sugar level more quickly than a test using a drop of blood from the fingertip, which the patient must carry out himself.

Unfortunately, there are no scientific studies, but in many cases the hit rate for diabetes warning dogs is around 80%. This is better the fresher the dog comes from the “school bench”. Hence the dog must be taken to training camp again and again. Unfortunately the diabetes warning dog is not an approved official medical aid. No health insurance subsidies are paid for the training, which can cost well over 10,000 €.

Other assistance scenting noses

Other diseases also change the smell of the human body and can therefore also be detected by assistance dogs. For example, an assistance dog can detect an impending epileptic seizure and warn those affected to seek safety or take medication. Dogs are also used to detect changes in the body in various types of cancer. Dogs are also currently being trained to sniff out Covid-19, but the project is still in its infancy (as of July 2020).

Of course, hunting dogs also need to have a particularly good nose for sniffing, as well as rescue dogs that can search for missing persons and track them down for miles. And do you know the “museum’s tracking dogs” that help to find and reassemble skeletons that are thousands of years old?

On the trail of crime

In addition to the drug detection dog used by customs, the data medium detection dog is also very modern in its tracking of crime. This is a search dog that is trained on electronic memory cards or USB sticks, as these storage media contain a certain chemical. For example, a so-called E-Detector dog can track down a memory stick at the bottom of a filled dustbin.

We will be introducing other “dogs with jobs” in a loose sequence to learn more about this fascinating world of canine top management.

Now if you’ve got the taste to challenge your dog a little bit more than with “sit” and “down”, then let’s go straight to our training snacks and have fun at work.


Verband für das Deutsche Hundewesen (Hrsg.): Unser Rasse Hund, Edition 3 /2019,