An unbreakable bond


03 July 2014

"Type I diabetes isn't on either side of our family, so when Alena was diagnosed I was completely shocked and cried all the way home from the hospital - I felt that I'd failed my daughter. I was quite ignorant about the condition and assumed it meant that she couldn't eat Mars bars, but it encompasses everything she eats and drinks.

"We've had to learn all about counting carbohydrates, finger prick testing, needles, and injections. But the hardest thing of all was trying to explain this to a three-year-old. At first, we had to pin her down, screaming, while she had her injections. And that was really hard for my husband, David, and for me. Maisie knew something was wrong. She seemed to understand why we arrived home from the hospital upset.

"Right from the very beginning, Alena and Maisie shared a strong bond. Alena fed and groomed her while Maisie slept in her room. They were inseparable."

Maisie to the rescue

"One day, while we were scouring the internet for general information about diabetes, we randomly came across the charity, Medical Detection Dogs, and it made so much sense.

"At first, however, I was sceptical. ‘Can dogs really sniff out human diseases like cancer and diabetes?' I wondered. But the more I researched, the more I discovered that if a person's blood sugar level is too low, their skin gives off an odour that dogs can pick up on. If it's too high, their breath emits a smell similar to pear drops, which dogs can also detect.

"After Alena was diagnosed, she had a lot of ‘hypers' - when her blood sugar level was too high because there wasn't enough insulin in her body - and a lot of ‘hypos' - when it was too low due to excess insulin, not eating enough, illness, or overexertion.

"There's a device called a continuous blood glucose monitor that can gauge blood sugar levels, but it's the size of a brick and not really comfortable for a child, as it requires a small canula to be inserted. Our only other option was a Medical Alert Assistance Dog.

"We discussed whether having another dog in the household would ruin the bond that Maisie and Alena already shared, but we decided it was a good idea. I rang the charity and was dismayed to discover that there was a two-year waiting list. Undeterred, I kept ringing them until finally - after eight months - they called.

"Arrangements were made for Simone Brainch, client support manager at Medical Detection Dogs, to visit us at our home in South Yorkshire to assess our suitability. We had to explain all about our lifestyle, provide letters from Alena's consultants, and fill out forms. But then the strangest thing happened. Simone noticed that Maisie was already trying to alert us when Alena's blood sugar level needed stabilising, but I had been ignoring her because I didn't know the signs.

"Simone, however, immediately recognised these mild signals: Maisie was putting her head on my knee and nudging me, then sniffing Alena and coming back to me. I just thought she was looking for attention and wanted to be stroked. We were taken aback when Simone said ‘Let's work on Maisie'. After thinking about it, my initial elation of ‘What an amazing dog' changed, and I felt rather daunted.

"‘What about when we take Maisie shopping - would everyone barge into her with their trolleys?' I worried. In the weeks that followed, we took Maisie down to the charity's head office in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, many times for training. Breath and skin samples collected from Alena when her blood sugar levels were high and low were used to train Maisie to recognise the unique odours.

"We went to the local shopping centre, in parks, and on trains, and also worked on Maisie's obedience. In addition, we learned to spot when she was alerting us. We also did a lot of training ourselves at home.

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Pet turned assistance dog

"After about a year, Maisie passed with flying colours and became an official Medical Alert Assistance Dog - we are so proud of her. Now, if we ignore Maisie alerting us, she'll jump up and won't take no for an answer. She can even detect if Alena's blood sugar level is too high or too low when she's riding her pony by sniffing the air.

"I can't overestimate the difference Maisie has made to our lives. But she's still - and always will be - a family pet. That hasn't changed. Who knows what would happen if we didn't have her? Every day she potentially saves Alena's life but a couple of incidents last summer particularly stick in my mind.

"One hot day, Alena had been in the garden on a bouncy castle and trampoline and in the paddling pool. Maisie kept going backwards and forwards between Alena and me, so I did a finger prick test and her blood sugar level was 2.2. She was just seconds from a coma.

"Then, another time, Alena was riding her pony at a show when Maisie kept pushing her nose into my hand. I was concentrating on Alena and her pony, so I ignored her at first - until she started jumping up at me. I immediately got Alena off her pony, finger prick tested her, and made sure she drank some apple juice and rested for half an hour.

"Thanks to Maisie, I can now sleep through the night knowing that she will wake me if there's a problem. Before, I was getting up every two hours to check on Alena - it was so draining and exhausting. Diabetes has been a lot for a young child to go through but Maisie is Alena's friend and partner and helps her through it. Maisie makes her feel that they are ‘in it together'.

"Previously, Alena had no ‘hypo' awareness but now, through Maisie, she's learned to recognise that low feeling. Maisie goes everywhere with us - I'd rather forget my husband than the dog - and she even stayed in our hotel room when we appeared on BBC Breakfast.

"Alena takes any media attention in her stride - she loves showing Maisie off and is proud to be the youngest person in Britain to have a Medical Alert Assistance Dog. She even wanted to enter ‘Britain's Got Talent' so Simon Cowell could see Maisie!

"For her seventh birthday, Alena was keen to thank the charity by asking people to send a donation instead of buying her a present. She has raised more than £1,000 and it's still ongoing. Alena couldn't live without Maisie. While it would be easier to have a monitor, this wouldn't be as comfortable, friendly, or reliable as a dog.

"Maisie is unbelievably special to our family and I end up crying every time I think about it."

Victoria Hughes, from Doncaster, South Yorkshire, was talking to Joanne Bednall.

About Medical Detection Dogs

With a dog's sense of smell up to 100,000 times more sensitive than a person's, it's no surprise that we have been trying to harness this to aid in the early detection of human illness and disease.

The charity, Medical Detection Dogs (MDD), works in partnership with researchers, NHS trusts, and universities to train specialist dogs to detect the odour of disease in humans.

MDD has two sections: Cancer Detection Dogs - which screen samples rather than people with the ultimate aim of developing an early cancer screening system - and Medical Alert Assistance Dogs, such as Maisie. The latter are trained to warn people about oncoming life-threatening events such as episodes of diabetes, narcolepsy, Addison's disease, and certain allergic reactions.

Medical Alert Assistance Dogs save sufferers' lives on a daily basis, give them greater independence, and boost their confidence. They are fully accredited and can access public areas in the same way that a guide dog can.

For more information, visit the Medical Detection Dogs website