Merenia Donne established a charity to train disability assistance dogs after suffering a serious car accident in which her dog saved her life by pulling her from the wreckage.
Since then, the Kotuku Foundation Assistance Animals Aotearoa has been training dogs to help people deal with a range of conditions including agoraphobia, autism, OCD and Parkinson's.
Their first diabetic response dog is now in its final six months of training.
Presenter: Richard Ewart
Speaker: Merenia Donne, founder Kotuku Foundation Assistance Animals Aotearoa
DONN: He's absolutely amazing, he's perfectly suited for the role. I knew fairly early on in the piece when I went to see him that he, that would be his particular niche. As you mentioned, there are many roles for assistance dogs and many different impairments they can help with and for a diabetic response dog, what you look for is a dog that's a very busy dog and a dog that likes to use its nose. So there are little bit akin to training a dog for drug detection, and explosives and various other things like cadaver rescue, search and rescue dogs, so the training follows some of the principles and you need a dog that's willing and happy to use its nose all day everyday, but in doing so, to focus just on that one very important key sense.
EWART: And once the animal is fully trained, how does the dog assist. I mean if an individual has a diabetic attack, what does the dog then do?
DONN: Well, there are a number of things the dogs can be trained to do. Firstly, they will go and indicate to the person and the way that we train them is they will have a rubber rod or a toy that hangs from their collar and they're taught to grasp it as soon as they sense a change in blood chemistry. They sit in front of the person very deliberately and grab onto the toy or the rod and because it's attached to the dog's collar, it's always with the dog, so there's no fear that the dog has to go and find the item, it's right there. And we've chosen to do that so that normal dog behaviour, like barking or pawing or licking, can't be mistaken for just a dog being a dog. So you choose a behaviour that is distinct from normal dog behaviour, so that it will give a clear signal to the person whose beginning to go into a hypoglycaemic event, but, oh, I need to check my blood and I need to take some glucose.
If it's progressed beyond that point, and the person is incoherent, because they do become incoherent quite quickly and can become very irritable and not pay attention to things. Then what the dog is also trained to do is to push an alarm button or to go and find someone. It depends on the persons living situation, whether they have other people around or whether they're living independently. We can train the dog to push an alarm button, which is connected to a service that will send somebody around. It usually brings up a flag.
In the States, they have a wonderful system called the Canine Phone, and it has a big button that the dog can push and it goes straight through to the emergency services.
EWART: So once the dog that's currently being trained reaches the end of that training stint, the animal will then be attached a particular individual in the same way, for example, a seeing eye dog would be?
DONN: Yes, absolutely. We go through a very stringent application selection matching and training process with the potential handlers as well. So as you can imagine, we've had a lot of interest in the dog and there are many, many people that could be helped and so we do have quite a long waiting list, but it doesn't operate on the first come first serve basis, because at the end of the day, the health, the welfare and the safety of the dog and the client are uppermost. So that means that you have to ensure that the dog you have it's temperament, it's own particular temperament and the way that it works is going to match with the person's lifestyle and their own personality, because dogs like people are all individuals, regardless and they have some similarities, because of being a particular breed, but they're all individuals and they all work slightly differently and so, for us, it's really important that we take a lot of time and a care in the matching process so that it's going to be life long successful partnership.
EWART: So how far do you see this initiative spreading? I mean if you look at the wider Pacific, unfortunately high rates of diabetes reported, so plainly these animals could serve a very useful purpose. But I guess it's the cost isn't it of training an animal?
DONN: Yes, although when you look at the figures, it's quite amazing. Just to give you an example, on the latest New Zealand health survey figures. There are potentially in New Zealand, 3,033 Type One Diabetics that have what we call hypoglycaemic unawareness and this is what the dogs are trained for, because, obviously, this is a life threatening condition. The person doesn't realise they're slipping into a hypoglycaemic event and very quickly from there, they can become comatose and they can die. So that figure, if you multiple that by 4,660 New Zealand dollars which is the average very conservative cost of every single discharge related to diabetes and you are conservative about it and say, only one of those, those 3,033 people, they only have one discharge per person, per year, then you're looking at an eight figure sum to the health system, which would pay for 283 diabetic response dogs, which are, going to avert and continue to avert those very expensive episodes and save the health system a small fortune to say nothing of averting all the terrible, debilitating things that happen when somebody has a hypoglycaemic event. And we're being very, very conservative when we say only one discharge per person, per annum, because they're multiple discharges associated with Type One hypoglycaemic unawareness. So in actual fact, the dogs would more than pay for themselves. But trying to get Ministry of Health and Pharmac people interested in it, despite the fact that it's well proven overseas and there is plenty of now journal published evidence about the role of the dogs and the efficacy of them. You're on an uphill battle, I'm afraid when you're dealing with politics. So we're 100 per cent reliant on sponsorship and donations and that can be frustrating, because you know there are many people out there you could help, if only you had more funding to do it. So we're incredibly grateful to our principle sponsor, Master Pet that feeds the dogs, because we couldn't do it without their input, that's a massive thing for us. But we also need funding to help with many of the other things, like the training costs and the ongoing visionary fees, those kind of things.