Lacy, a 7-year-old St. Bernard, can sniff out when her master, Cherie Hughes, needs to eat.
The dog will first stick out her tongue when she detects low blood sugar, Hughes said. The signals escalate to licking and nudging if Hughes doesn’t eat, she said. Recently, Lacy woke Hughes by slapping her with a paw to warn her of her low blood sugar, she said.
Like other service dogs, Lacy has a mothering, nurturing personality, Hughes said.
“They are very caring. They take their job seriously,” she said.
Hughes, 75, of Durango started training dogs 50 years ago and was aware of their abilities to detect changes in human blood sugar before she trained a mixed-breed dog to help her grandson, Jarvie Arnold, manage his Type I diabetes.
Hughes, a former nurse, enlists Lacy to help manage her blood sugar levels. She regularly experiences low blood sugar that can lead to shakiness and nausea, but she cannot feel it coming on, she said.
Hughes’ twin has a similar condition, and in her case, low blood sugar leads to unconsciousness, she said.
Hughes trained her first dog to detect blood sugar changes about 10 years ago when her grandson saw his blood sugar regularly soar and then crash, she said. She researched buying a service dog for him, but found they were tens of thousands of dollars.
Hughes, a lifelong dog lover, started training St. Bernards 50 years ago, which eventually lead to teaching them to track using scent.
She trained Rainie Sue – a Dachshund, beagle and basset hound mix – to alert Arnold to changes in his blood sugar.
Rainie Sue, now deceased, later came to live with Hughes and her husband, John, and helped Hughes manage her low blood sugar.
Rainie Sue, Lacy and Buddy, the latest addition to the family, have all been trained in similar ways to detect changes in blood sugar.
The training relies on teaching the dogs to detect ammonia because it is similar to the smell of acetone that humans emit when their blood sugar is too high or too low.
First, Hughes will play a game with a dog. She will hide a bit of food and a pad coated with ammonia beneath one of three cups and then mix those cups up before asking the dog to locate the food and the ammonia.
Once a dog gets good at finding the food hidden with the ammonia, she will start asking it to find a pad of ammonia hidden on her body, she said.
For Hughes, the help from the dogs was needed not because she is a diabetic, but because the steroid treatments she received for her allergies for many years gave her chronic problems with blood sugar.
Her allergies were triggered by cigarette smoke that would cause her airway to close and give her massive hives, she said.
At an allergy clinic, she was prescribed Prednisone, a steroid, and the allergy specialist there essentially told her, “If you don’t take this medicine, you’re going to die,” she said.
But it caused a slew of side effects, including low blood sugar, which made her constantly hungry and led to battles with her weight.
In recent years, she cut out eating sugar and sugar substitutions completely, she said.
“Sugar is both sucrose, which raises your blood sugar, and fructose, which gives you insulin resistance,” she said. Insulin is a hormone that allows the body to use glucose, sugar from carbohydrates, and regulates blood sugar levels.
A carefully regulated diet has helped Hughes maintain a healthy weight, which she considers key to her long-term health because being overweight is a risk factor for diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer, she said.
“Who wants to spend a half million dollars supporting your favorite physician and the lifestyle they are accustomed to living?” she asked.
Careful regulation of her diet in recent years has also helped control her blood sugar, and her dogs typically tell her she has low blood sugar only first thing in the morning, she said.
But just in case, Lacy goes everywhere with Hughes so she is never caught unaware by low blood sugar.
In the grocery store and restaurants, areas of temptation for any dog, Lacy has perfect manners, which are key for service dogs, Hughes said.
“They have to have impeccable manners: no pulling, no barking, no picking fights,” she said.
As a part of her duties, Lacy is a regular attendee at First United Methodist Church, where she is a beloved member.
“She is the only one who is allowed to snore,” Hughes said.