An Idiographic Investigation of Diabetic Alert Dogs' Ability to Learn From a Small Sample of Breath Samples From People With Type 1 Diabetes

Catherine Reeve*, Elizabeth Cummings, Elizabeth McLaughlin, Sonia Smith, Simon Gadbois

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Citations (Scopus)


Objective: There is a growing market for diabetes-alert dogs but little has been published regarding their ability to reliably detect hypoglycemia. We aimed to determine whether 2 dogs could detect hypoglycemic breath samples from people with type 1 diabetes (T1D) and then transfer detection to novel hypoglycemic breath samples. Methods: Breath samples were collected from individuals with T1D during times of normo-, hypo- and hyperglycemia. Two dogs, previously trained (3 alternative forced choice) with breath samples from 3 different individuals with T1D, were presented with 3 breath samples from the same individual: 1 hypoglycemic, 1 normoglycemic and 1 hyperglycemic, and trained to identify the hypoglycemic sample using a “yes/no” procedure. The dogs' ability to transfer detection was then tested by presenting them with a novel sample set from the same individual. Then we tested whether 1 dog could transfer detection of the odour of hypoglycemia by presenting new samples from a different individual. Results: One dog was able to transfer detection of the odour of hypoglycemia to samples from the same individual (specificity 89%, sensitivity 62%), but a second dog was not. Results were inconclusive regarding the ability of 1 dog to transfer detection of the odour of hypoglycemia across 2 individuals. Conclusions: The results suggest that some dogs can be trained to detect hypoglycemic breath of an individual with T1D, but detection may not transfer to novel samples from other individuals. Results should be interpreted with caution, as the dogs were trained with only a small number of breath samples before testing.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)37-43
JournalCanadian Journal of Diabetes
Issue number1
Early online date09 May 2019
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors thank Dr Vin LoLordo and Dr Ray Klein (both at Dalhousie University) for their consultation and feedback; Karen Scott for coordinating the project; the dog owners, who reliably brought their dogs to our lab each week; the many student volunteers, who contributed their time; and, finally, the participants who contributed the breath samples. This research was supported by a research grant from the IWK Health Centre (Category A 1012183) awarded to Drs Cummings, Gadbois, and McLaughlin and an NSERC grant PGS-D awarded to C. Reeve. Neither the IWK Health Centre nor NSERC were involved in the study design, data collection, data analysis and interpretation or writing the report, nor were they involved in the decision to submit the article for publication. The data in this study were previously presented as a poster at the Diabetes Canada 20th Annual Professional Conference on November 1‒4, 2017. The abstract can be found at .

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 Canadian Diabetes Association

Copyright 2020 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • canine olfaction
  • diabetes-alert dog
  • hypoglycemia

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Internal Medicine
  • Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism
  • Endocrinology


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