Trained canine ready to be diabetics' best friend

JOHN ANTHONY
Last updated 05:00 26/03/2013
Kotuku Foundation Assistance Animals Aotearoa founder Merenia Donne with response dogs Uni and Rica.
ANDY JACKSON/Fairfax NZ
DIABETIC HELPERS: Kotuku Foundation Assistance Animals Aotearoa founder Merenia Donne with response dogs Uni and Rica. Uni, who is trained in Waitara, is the first diabetic response dog in New Zealand.

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New Zealand's first diabetic response dog is being trained in Waitara by a woman who owes her life to a german shepherd.

Uni, a two-year-old german shepherd, is in the last six months of her training to become the country's first diabetic assistance dog, says his trainer Merenia Donne.

Uni is being trained under the charity Kotuku Foundation Assistance Animals Aotearoa (KFAA), for which Ms Donne is responsible.

Ms Donne said she established the foundation after a car crash in which she drove off a cliff and suffered a serious head injury.

She said Nikki, the german shepherd she owned at the time, pulled her from the wreck and up the cliff.

"I wouldn't be talking to you now if it wasn't for her," Ms Doone said.

Nikki died of a brain tumour a few years later and Ms Donne set up the charity in the dog's honour.

Once Uni has completed her training she will be assigned to a type-1 or type-2 diabetic with hypoglycaemic awareness.

The hypersensitive nose of a diabetic response dog can alert diabetics of an oncoming attack before the person knows it.

Dogs do this by detecting abnormal blood sugar levels and responding to impending hypoglycaemia. When this happens the dog is trained to use indicator behaviour, summon assistance or retrieve vital medical supplies.

A dog could raise the alarm by stepping on a specially installed button in a residence or by biting on a rod that hung from its collar, she said.

Ms Donne, who has 15 years' dog- training experience, herself owned an assistance dog named Rica.

"The shepherds are the Rolls-Royce of assistance dogs. They're very intelligent."

Since suffering the head injury Ms Donne said she had suffered from several seizures during which Rica raised the alarm before it took hold.

" . . . she knows before I do."

To train a diabetic response dog costs about $50,000, she said.

Because KFAA was set up as a charity it was funded solely by sponsorship and donations, she said. "We're not in it to make money, we're in it to help people.

"We're hoping as we grow we'll be able to attract more funding."

Ms Donne said that, much like guide dogs, diabetic response dog were not supposed to be patted by strangers.

"It's breaking down their training every time that happens."

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