A PhD student at Dalhousie University is trying to advance diabetes research by studying whether animals can detect changes in blood sugar levels.

With the help of a border collie named Nutella — a former rescue dog — Catherine Reeve hopes her study will eventually help to train diabetic service dogs. 

"The dogs are fantastic and 100 per cent accurate," she says of her research.

Nutella

Reeve's lab partner Nutella is four years old. (Allison Devereaux/CBC)

Right now there are nine diabetic service dogs working in Canada, according to Guide Dogs Canada — a non-profit organization that provides service dogs free of charge. 

The dogs are trained to detect when their owner's blood sugar level drops dangerously low. They will alert a loved one, activate an emergency button or fetch a diabetic kit.  

In the private sector, there are companies that offer diabetic service dogs across the United States and U.K., but they can cost tens of thousands of dollars. 

Canada in need of puppy proof

Reeve says there's a wealth of anecdotal evidence that dogs have this ability, but there's a lack of scientific proof in Canada. 

"It's kind of screaming for somebody to do this research and contribute to the literature," she said.

One of the questions Reeve hopes to answer is whether there's a general scent associated with blood sugar we all share, or if it varies from person to person. 

She is also trying to prove whether dogs are better off being trained in a lab, using breath samples, or if they need to be trained directly with the person they're serving. 

"That's in itself quite rewarding to know you could help contribute to the field of research and help improve the lives of people with diabetes." 

When she graduates one year from now, Reeve is hoping to have the results. 

The process

For her study, Reeve first taught the dogs to hone their scent of smell using tea, which can easily be diluted to test skill. The border collies were chosen not for a superior sense of smell over other breeds, but because they're extremely high energy. 

Reeve collected breath samples from patients with Type 1 diabetes at IWK Health Centre in Halifax. Each patient provided low, normal and high blood sugar samples. 

Nutella, Dalhousie diabetes research

Cotton balls soaked with breath samples from patients with Type 1 diabetes are placed in tubes. Nutella must match the breath samples and is rewarded if correct. (Allison Devereaux/CBC)

Reeve then placed cotton balls carrying the breath samples inside three separate tubes. The dog smells a cotton ball with one of the samples, and must identify the matching one from the three tubes. 

The dogs are then rewarded with food, such as kibble or wieners. 

Reeve says she then repeats the task 39 times. 

"They will work non-stop, for as long as you want. We force them to have breaks, even if they don't want the breaks."