They say a dog is man’s best friend, but for 12-year-old Duncan Smuts his dog, Honey, also doubles up as his lifesaver.
Duncan, from Sunningdale, was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes when he was just three years old. Duncan’s dad, Greg, says they first tried to get a medical alert dog from overseas to help Duncan manage his complex health condition but it was too costly.
“We looked into local trainers and sought a sponsorship to train our dog,” he says. When an insurance company offered to fund Honey’s training, it was the start of a new journey for Duncan and our family”.
Honey is in the process of being certified as the first official medical alert dog to be trained in South Africa. She has been trained to identify the scent changes associated with life-threatening medical events such as low blood sugar levels, which have been a real struggle for Duncan.
Greg says Honey has already woken Duncan up once after detecting a drop in his sugar levels. With more training, her ability to detect the smell of a hypoglycaemic episode will become stronger and more reliable.
The Grade 6 pupil has formed a strong bond with Honey. “I never thought I would share such a strong bond with a dog before Honey. She has become my best friend and a great help to me and my family. I can’t remember how life was without her.”
His mom, Jennyanne, says Honey is a great help. “Honey was our family’s very first dog. Since then, and from watching how well our children have taken to her, we have bought another dog for our youngest son.
“We do, however, face many challenges as this concept is still quite new in South Africa, but we are hoping that through Honey’s example, we will encourage other families to consider this additional assistance.” Honey is trained by Lucy Breytenbach, a behaviour practitioner with a degree in animal science, behaviour and welfare. She works closely with Duncan to train Honey in scent work every day.
“Duncan does a lot of the practice work himself with the amazing support from his family and does a fantastic job. I work with them to monitor progress and help them with any problems they may have.
w“These incredible dogs have been assisting people physically and psychologically all over the world, and with great success. Dogs have been proven to reduce stress and anxiety, and give people a new lease on life. With the added ability of detecting changes in blood glucose levels, the possibilities are endless.
“I cannot wait for them to make a real difference to the lives of South African diabetic children and adults,” says Lucy.
Duncan’s parents have the following advice for parents considering getting a medical alert dog:
It is best to get the dog from early diagnosis, not necessarily when things start to get bad.
Always consider the high level of responsibility on the child and family before selecting to go this route. The child needs to be at an age where he or she can take responsibility for the dog.
Ensure that the type of dog you get will be compatible with your family’s lifestyle and that it has already received all the necessary training.
Find out upfront from the child’s school if they will be welcoming of the dog.
As this concept is still new in South Africa, chances are you’ll need to commission a specialised trainer which can make this quite an expensive exercise.
Although the dogs assist, they are neither a guarantee nor a permanent solution to the problem – effort and time to manage the child’s diabetes is still needed from the family.