Coco, a chocolate-brown cocker spaniel puppy, had been living with her owner for just three days when it is likely she saved her life for the first time. Now, six months later, it happens daily. Millie Law, who is 12, has a complex form of type 1 diabetes, which gives her no indication when her blood sugar levels are dangerously low or high. Coco, who can use her powerful sense of smell to detect changes on Millie’s breath or sweat, is one of about 7,000 dogs in Britain offering life-changing – and sometimes life-saving – support to children and adults with a growing range of medical conditions and disabilities.
As well as guide dogs for the blind and hearing dogs, specially trained dogs can provide practical support to those with conditions ranging from multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy to the effects of stroke and autism. Others can alert to dangerous situations in type 1 diabetes, epilepsy, Addison’s disease, nut allergy, narcolepsy and some cardiac conditions.
“Coco is a guardian angel,” says Millie’s father, Graham. “Before she arrived, Millie didn’t feel safe. She had several frightening emergency hospital admissions. Now she knows Coco is looking after her wherever she goes.”
Coco is in the process of becoming an accredited diabetic alert dog through the organisation Hypo Hounds. Unusually, this new charity works with and trains pet dogs rather than by matching people with pre-trained dogs. Coco is now eight months, and her training should be complete – with her identifying 80% of Millie’s hypos (blood glucose lows) and hypers (highs) – by the age of two.
Coco alerts Millie by barking or pawing at her. In time, she will also then fetch an emergency treatment kit. Though Millie does wear a continuous glucose monitor, it only indicates a problem about 15 minutes after her glucose level has fallen or risen too far. Alert dogs can detect glucose changes around 30 minutes before the level reaches a danger point.
Graham hopes Coco’s skills will allow Millie “a more typical teenage life”; previously difficult not just because of the medical risks, but also because of her lack of confidence. “Millie was too scared to go out without us or to meet friends, and we were worried to let her go. At parties or school trips, she had to have one of us. As a teenager that isn’t ideal.”
Since her diagnosis aged six, Millie’s parents have checked her at 2am every night. “To be honest, every morning we go into Millie’s room to check she is breathing. Extra peace of mind would be incredible.” Aside from her vital alert work, Coco is affectionate and playful pet. “She has been our family dog from the start – we all love her – but she has an incredible bond with Millie. She follows her everywhere. Coco is like a best friend.”