A Diabetic’s Best Friend

Lisa Horween-Kelly ’81 trains dogs to sniff out dangerous glucose levels

by Christina Barber-Just

Lisa Horween-Kelly ’81 trains dogs to sniff out dangerous glucose levels.
Monitoring blood sugar levels can be a matter of life and death, though the accuracy of glucose meters has been questionable. But, Lisa Horween-Kelly ’81 has a solution—thanks in part to some “furry continuous glucose monitors.” She is co-founder of Dogabetics, a Tacoma, Washington-based business that trains service dogs to detect fluctuations in their owners’ blood sugar levels.
Ensuring that a diabetic’s blood sugar stays within a safe range is a constant balancing act; a service dog maintains 24/7 vigilance with a nose more accurate than a glucose meter. Using their sense of smell, diabetic service dogs can detect if their companions’ blood sugar levels are too low or too high, and alert them to the danger. Low blood sugar has a “rusty-bucket smell,” Horween-Kelly says, and can cause unconsciousness, seizure, coma, even death. High blood sugar is evidenced by a sweet, fruity smell; long term, it can lead to blindness, kidney failure, nerve damage, and more.
Horween-Kelly can personally attest to this. Dogabetics’ first graduate, a black Lab named Max, belongs to her 15-year-old son, Liam, who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2008. As a physical therapist, Horween-Kelly has treated patients with complications from diabetes, and she “didn’t want that future for Liam at all.” So when she saw her first diabetic-alert dog at a Seattle diabetes conference just days after Liam’s diagnosis, she vowed to get one for her son. Liam’s experience with the dog has been so successful—Max is “the ultimate wingman”—that Horween-Kelly teamed up with the pooch’s trainer to start Dogabetics. Their goal is to train a dozen dogs a year, and thirty people are already on a waiting list.
“I’m so motivated to try and make this work,” Horween-Kelly says. “I want to give other people the opportunity to have a dog that might save and improve their life while they’re coping with this disease.”
Fall ’10 SAQ