A Life-Saving Mission for Sonny

World Diabetes Day is an international event to raise awareness about diabetes, celebrated every year on 14 November.

Rachel and Sonny

To commemorate the event this year, we interviewed our very own Rachel Parsons, Veterinary Nurse at Vetwest Wanneroo. Rachel has Type One diabetes, and she is training her new puppy Sonny to become a diabetes alert dog. Sonny will have the ability to save Rachel’s life, and that makes him a very special dog!

When and how did you find out you had diabetes?

I was diagnosed with Type One diabetes nine years ago when I was 12. After spending more time at home during the school holidays, my parents noticed I’d lost a substantial amount of weight, and I was constantly thirsty. Before going on my school holidays I noticed I was falling asleep in class, and with my mum being a nurse she connected the dots and took me straight to the doctors. I was told ‘you’re diabetic, you’ll be on insulin injections four times a day for the rest of your life’, and admitted into hospital for a few days.

What impact has it had on your lifestyle?

Type One diabetes affects different people in different ways. Being diagnosed at such an awkward stage in my life (being a teenager) I thought I knew what was best instead of listening to my parents and doctors. It was recommended that I try an insulin pump but denied it due to the look of it, and the idea of having something attached to me constantly. I have been extremely sick with my diabetes in the past few years, ending up in intensive care over Christmas in 2012, constantly high blood sugar averages, and the doctors were baffled. I really started to worry when my colleagues at Vetwest Wanneroo started to notice my weight drop again and my constant ill health. I became an insulin pump user in August last year and I’m happier, healthier and more determined than ever to get my 3 month blood sugar averages to a normal level.

How will having a diabetes alert dog make a difference?

Having an alert dog means that when I’m asleep and I become hypoglycaemic (low blood sugar levels), Sonny will be able to wake me up and I can medicate myself accordingly. An alert dog can detect low blood sugar levels by scent, so this means peace of mind for me when I go to sleep at night.  At the moment I can feel my blood sugars going low, however I am aware that some people lose this feeling over time. I plan to have a family in the future, and there’s always the chance my children will also have type one diabetes, so it’s good to know my children’s health will be watched over by not only my doctors and myself but my dog too!

How did you find Sonny?

Sonny was a chance find. I originally was looking for a Basset Hound pup, but after lots of let downs I decided to give up. As I already have a female Golden Retriever and a Standard Labradoodle, I had to apply for a three dog permit with my local council. I found Sonny on a registered breeders list and as soon as I met him I fell in love. Two weeks later I collected him and he settled into my home like he had always been there. He’s an awesome little guy and my other two dogs absolutely adore him. His intelligence amazes me when it comes to training, however he’s still a typical cheeky pup! He loves the water a little too much, and when he’s with me at the clinic he tries to sit in the water bowls!

What special training will he need?

Sonny is being trained by me without any assistance. I did look into great companies like ‘Paws for Diabetes’, however this type of training means Sonny would be a full-time service dog, like a guide dog for blind people. He would need to come with me everywhere I went and would not be able to be a family dog. I don’t feel like Sonny needs to come with me to the supermarket, and I want him to be a family dog - not keep him away from other dogs and children. He’s too nosey and wants to be friends with everyone!

Sonny is currently being trained to pick up on my low blood sugar readings through scent. By taking samples of my saliva when I’m experiencing a low blood sugar reading (by the use of dental swabs) I can get him to learn the smell. I use the command ‘paw’ as the signal, so I haven’t taught him ‘shake’ or ‘high five’ to avoid confusion. This kind of training can take over a year so being persistent and patient, as with any puppy training, is the key.

How can people help / donate / raise awareness for diabetes?

My colleagues at Vetwest Wanneroo have been amazingly supportive when it comes to my diabetes over the past three years. Not only are we all great work friends, we’re all friends out of work. They constantly encourage me to stay positive on my off days, and last year a group of us did Perth’s JDRF ‘Walk to Cure Diabetes’ and raised funds for JDRF (Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation)

JDRF supports Australian diabetes research via the strategic provision of funding, investing over $160 million into Australian research to date. I think JDRF is an amazing charity and vital to giving kids and teenagers somewhere to discuss their problems and help each other out, and the research and testing they’ve done with the money they’ve raised has improved the lives of so many kids with type one diabetes, the money raised has helped improve technology with insulin pumps and helped create the Constant Glucose Monitor, which checks your blood glucose levels every 5 minutes.

My main aim when I talk about awareness for Type One diabetes is to distinguish that Type One and Type Two diabetes are two completely different conditions and should not be compared to one another. Type One is not caused from an unhealthy lifestyle/too much sugar/obesity like a lot of people think. It is a genetic disease with no known cause. Unlike Type Two diabetes, it cannot be cured (however it is very difficult to go into remission with Type Two). A lot of news reports you see on the television about certain foods and lifestyle choices ‘increase the risk of diabetes’, usually refer to Type Two diabetes, but never mention the important part, that they’re talking about ‘Type Two’, so it leaves a lot of people confused about the condition and its effects

I would love to be able to help other families out in the future if I can perfect the training with Sonny. Dogs are amazing creatures and are truly a humans best friend, and in Sonny’s case and many other dogs, a life saver!

To learn more about World Diabetes Day visit:

14 November

13 November

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