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Dog of the Day

Nicolina Puts Her Sense of Smell to Work

by Carie Broecker


nicolina medical alert dog

Nicolina is a remarkable dog. She has the enormous responsibility of potentially saving her guardian’s life several times each and every day. Nicolina is on the job 24/7, even while she is sleeping. She is one of a growing number of medical-alert dogs trained to detect when their human companion’s blood glucose level has dropped. Yes, there are devices that do that, too. In fact, Nicolina’s person, Sisi, wears a sensor and an insulin pump. The sensor alerts her if her sugar is too high or too low.  If too high, then she programs the pump to send in the correct amount of insulin.  If it says she is too low, then she knows she needs to eat some sugar and carbohydrates quickly. Nicolina carries sugar tablets in her vest pocket so they are always readily available to Sisi. Nicolina almost always alerts Sisi about the drop in blood sugar before her sensor goes off!

Fortunately, for people with diabetes, the life saving potential of the canine’s extraordinary sense of smell has been harnessed and now assists diabetics in living  longer, safer lives with the help of their canine medical-alert dogs.

Dogs4Diabetics is a nonprofit organization established in 2004 to serve insulin-dependent type-1 diabetics in the western United States. In the past 5 years Dogs4Diabetics has trained 70 dogs that have been paired with diabetic youth and adults.

Dog4Diabetics dogs have typically been through the Guide Dogs for the Blind or assistance dog training and for one reason or another are given a “career change” to become a medical-alert dog.

For Nicolina, her career change came when it was discovered that she has a soft trachea and could not tolerate the harness necessary to serve as a guide dog. Already highly trained, Nicolina was then specifically trained to identify and act upon the subtle scent changes that low blood glucose creates in body chemistry. These changes are undetectable to their human companions and left undetected could be life threatening.

The first day Sisi brought Nicolina home she lay down to take a nap. A few hours later she woke up to find a 75-pound dog standing over her, alerting her that her blood sugar was dropping. A drop in blood sugar while sleeping can be a diabetic’s worst fear as they might slip into a life-threatening coma.

sisi and nicolina

When Sisi’s blood sugar drops, Nicolina alerts her by staring at her intensely. Usually Sisi notices, and knows to test her blood sugar. If Nicolina stares at Sisi and Sisi is preoccupied and does not notice, Nicolina will get anxious, begin vocalizing, and will finally nudge Sisi to alert her. Nicolina has even been known to go alert Sisi’s grandchildren or a co-worker if Sisi is not paying attention. These are tactics Nicolina developed on her own that go one step beyond her training.

Amazingly, Nicolina has even alerted diabetics other than Sisi. Sisi was entertaining some guests at her house who also happened to be diabetic, and when they got ready to leave the house, Nicolina got very anxious. Sisi let the guests know they should test their blood sugar before getting in their cars. Both insisted they felt fine, but tested anyway, and they were both at dangerously low levels.

Nicolina alerts Sisi an average of once or twice a day. She walks to work with Sisi, and while Sisi is working at her desk at the UC Santa Cruz  Police Department, Nicolina is working, too. Even when Nicolina is sleeping near Sisi’s desk, her sense of smell is still on-duty, and she will wake up and alert Sisi when necessary.

One day Sisi was getting ready to drive over Highway 17, a winding mountain road that connects Santa Cruz County with Santa Clara County. Just as she was ready to make her descent, Nicolina alerted Sisi that her blood sugar was dropping. Sisi felt perfectly fine, but did not question Nicolina’s warning. She pulled over, tested herself, and found that she was on her way to a severe hypoglycemic episode. Nicolina most likely saved her life and the lives of anyone else that may have been involved in an accident had Sisi become incapacitated.

Sisi and her husband Steve are avid dog lovers that have had labs their whole lives. They are grateful to Nicolina for the integral role she plays in Sisi’s life, but they also adore her as a companion and family member.

Dogs4Diabetics is an innovative non-profit organization that provides quality medical alert assistance dogs to youth and adults who are insulin-dependent type 1 diabetics through a program of training, placement, and follow-up services. Dog4Diabetics relies on donations from the community to continue their life-saving work. To find out more about Dogs4Diabetics or to make a donation visit www.dogs4diabetics.com or call (925) 246-5785

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