Type 2 Diabetes afflicts nearly 30 million people in the United States. Few people realize that there’s an under-reported complication of this irreversible disease – loss of hearing. As such, many people are surprised to learn that Hearing Dogs can help diabetics.
When most people think about diabetes, they think about blood testing, insulin shots and sometimes even the loss of an appendage. In fact, there are lots of complications of diabetes — and one surprising complication is hearing loss. Hearing loss is twice as common in people with diabetes — and within the 86 million adults in the country who have pre-diabetes, the rate of hearing loss is 30 percent higher.
Reasons why hearing loss and diabetes are linked is scarce, though there are several theories. One leading theory is that high blood glucose levels could damage the small blood vessels in the inner ear, similar to how diabetes can affect eyes and kidneys, but more research needs to be done.
Because hearing loss happens gradually, many people are unaware at first that they have a problem. Often, family and friends notice decreasing responsiveness before the person affected does.
When the hearing of diabetics was tested by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the low, middle, and high frequency range, loss was reported across all three with the greatest loss at the high frequency level. In layman’s terms, that means for those with diabetes, all sounds become diminished, especially high pitched ones.
Adding Hearing Dog Tasks to a Diabetic Service Dog’s Education
Before we talk about Hearing Dog tasks for diabetics, it’s important to mention that all training is difficult work — and training a dog to alert on blood glucose levels is especially hard. While some dogs seem to have a natural ability, they still need to be rigorously trained, tested and proven. Remember, natural behaviors (things your dog has “taught” him or herself to do) do not qualify as tasks. Any task your dog performs needs to be trained until they are able to perform it every single time, no mater where they are, no matter how many distractions are around you. After all, your life may depend on it. If you don’t have experience training animals, we recommend you work with a professional trainer or Service Dog organization.
Before your dog is able to reliably alert on your blood glucose levels, there are other tasks that can be trained. For example, fetching your glucose meter on demand, on cue or even at a specific time of day. Some dogs are trained to remind their human partner to take their medications at specific times.
When considering Hearing Dog tasks for diabetics, keep in mind that high frequency sounds are the most important. Sounds like your morning alarm, smoke alarm, door bell and telephone are common things to begin with — and since your dog needs to be able to alert under any circumstances, training for a wide range of sounds is imperative.
There are a lot of different sounding doorbells, wake-up alarms, and smoke alarms. And even though all have relatively high frequency level, being able to train for different sounds is a must. A simple device that can help is a wireless doorbell that can play multiple sounds. A device like this will allow you to change to various sounds and levels without having to run outside and ring the doorbell, set your alarm clock repeatedly or trigger your smoke alarm to go off.
To precisely mark, reinforce, and lock in the desired behavior, we recommend using a clicker. In case you don’t know what that is, the Karen Pryor Clicker Training Academy (KPA) defines clicker training as, “a type of animal training based on behavioral psychology that relies on marking desirable behavior and rewarding it.” It’s also known as “classical conditioning.”
What are the Signs of Hearing Loss?
According to the American Diabetes Association, there are six common signs of hearing loss:
- Frequently asking others to repeat themselves.
- Trouble following conversations that involve more than two people.
- Thinking that others are mumbling.
- Problems hearing in noisy places such as busy restaurants.
- Trouble hearing the voices of women and small children.
- Turning up the TV or radio volume too loud for others who are nearby.
What should you do if you suspect hearing loss?
First, make an appointment to talk with your primary care physician. Your doctor may refer you to a hearing specialist like an audiologist or a doctor who specializes in hearing problems. Simply having diabetes or pre-diabetes d0esn’t mean you will develop hearing loss, but it’s something you should be aware could potentially happen. Beginning to train for simple Hearing Dog tasks could be a benefit to you later down the road.