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What Does a Medical Alert Dog Do?

Our dogs are our best friends. They listen to our problems and give us a shoulder to cry on without judgement. They make us laugh and give us purpose. In some cases, they also save our lives.

This month we meet a dog named Sienna and her owner Hannah Mitchell, who gives us an insight into what life is like for her and her miniature sized medical alert dog, telling us that Sienna has changed her life, but it isn’t always easy when out and about.

Here’s Hannah.

Sienna is a real sweetie. She is very affectionate, fun, mad, extremely clever and just loves being a part of our daily lives. I’ve had her since she was eight-weeks-old. She is now nearly three-years-old. We are an owner trained partnership which means that I own her.

My mum's dog is related to her so we knew her breeder and their temperament. I knew that this was the most important thing for an assistance dog. I’d always had Poodles and love the breed very much. With the right training and guidance, they are amazing, fun, clever and loving little dogs. My previous medical alert dog Chica was also a Poodle but much bigger. I thought a smaller dog this time would be much easier for me to manage, for example, to pick up and ride with me on my wheelchair if needed in busy places.

She has been a dream to train and share our home with. A fun bundle of pure Poodle fluff and so full of character. She can be flying at top speed around the garden one minute and then lying fast asleep totally relaxed upside down on top of you the next.

What Does a Medical Alert Dog Do?

I have a number of very serious health conditions. Some have sadly happened due to me having large amounts of steroids over the years for other health conditions. The list of things that I suffer with is much too long and complex to write here but my main issues are severe Allergies, Asthma, Adrenal Insufficiency, Diabetes, PoTS (postural tachycardia syndrome) and hEDS (Ehlers-Danlos syndrome). It has taken over 11 years to be diagnosed with some of these conditions which in the meantime has sadly really taken its toll on my body.

Sienna alerts to Adrenal Insufficiency (low cortisol), Diabetes (low and high blood sugar), PoTS (high and low blood pressure and pulse changes) and has started alerting to allergic reactions too.

Sienna’s alerting can start at any time of the day, and even in the night. This is always rewarded with her absolute favourite - fresh chicken. To her, an alert is a positive thing due to the association with her favourite food. Being so small, her food has to be carefully monitored, especially if she is alerting a lot. She can easily alert up to ten times a day, sometimes up to 15. That’s an awful lot of chicken!

A Day in the Life of a Medical Alert Dog

A working day for Sienna can vary so much. Here’s one such example of a day:

It’s the start of a busy morning and she wakes up a fraction before the alarm clock. She goes out into the garden and then has her breakfast. She loves her food and never refuses a snack. This is followed by a long sleep and snuggle with me on the bed until I need to get up. She watches the world go by the window, her real-time TV and enjoys a good knaw on her natural dog chew.

She dives into her little igloo bed in the living room as I make my breakfast and take my never-ending list of tablets. She always takes the chance to have another 40 winks whenever she can. Her default position is to be on her back with her legs in the air.

She stays in her bed snoozing as I get up and alerts me if I need it, even if she’s in another room.

Then she has a much-needed snack, two cheesy bone biscuits and another loo break because it’s time to check on her pet insects on the patio. She finds ants and woodlice particularly fascinating. She also likes to see if her garden hedgehog is okay too.

After that, it’s time for a quick groom to make sure she’s looking her absolute best for her work and some sausage as a reward for being so good and on goes her harness, collar and lead while I take a quick look at the weather to see if she needs a jumper, jacket, raincoat...I’m sure you get the idea! She needs to be clean and dry if she’s going into a hospital or shop.

Her bag is packed ready as she carries more than me. A bottle of water, bowl, treats, chicken (for alerts), poo bags, her clean mat to lie on and a jumper as she gets cold working in refrigerated parts of shops, not something most larger assistance dogs have a problem with.

Today we have a trip to the hospital planned for an appointment. We have lots of these, they are a large part of our life these days. Along the way to the car, we have a nice road walk where she has a good sniff and gets a nice leg stretch before she jumps straight into her car crate. She loves it in there, it's nice and safe while travelling.

We arrive at the local hospital and it’s straight to the assistance dog toilet area before I put on her working jacket and head for the entrance.

Now, walking around with any dog gets you attention, but walking around with Sienna brings you even more interest because she’s only nine and a half inches high at the shoulder. She’s cute and fluffy, she’s a tiny weeny Poodle. She tries so hard to be serious and do her job beautifully in her working jacket but sometimes it’s extremely difficult, almost impossible. She doesn’t see the difference between herself and a Labrador, in fact, I’m sure she thinks she is one.

Smiles are always forthcoming from the public and we love to know that Sienna has brightened up someone’s day. We’ve taken endless amounts of selfies with people and do our best to engage with the public and answer their many questions.

However, we do experience a whole host of other peculiar human behaviours. Pointed fingers, quiet ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhhs’ building up to full-blown screams and roaring laughter. We have had people trying to physically grab her, actually picking her up, as well as people following and stalking us round shops too.

We are frequently stopped because someone has actually jumped right in front of us so that we can be examined much more closely. I won’t even talk about being physically rammed with a trolley to stop me so that someone could say ‘hello’ to the little doggy. Honestly, I’m not kidding. This is all very normal for us to witness when out and about together. I’m so lucky that Sienna is of such a wonderful disposition and seems to take everything thrown at her with ease. It’s just a shame that a few people can’t respect when I make the decision to give Sienna some much-needed space and allow her to go about her work in peace. There is only so much any person or animal can take and that can be very stressful if not managed carefully.

Today, we are lucky. We have got away with countless smiles, a few ‘ahhhs’, one pointing finger, one angry shout of “why is there a dog in a hospital, I’m going to complain”, one nurse walking into a concrete pillar because she was so busy looking at us walking behind her (that was extremely amusing I must say!) and nearly being run over by the elderly volunteer driving patients bus at speed. Apparently, I’m not as agile as I once was.

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After all that excitement, Sienna’s jumping up alerting me. After doing all the necessary checks and medication, she’s rewarded with her chicken. It’s now time to go and have my jabs.

She lies on her mat while I’m injected and afterwards the nurse makes a big fuss of her. It's so nice to make the staff smile. Sometimes we can cause a pile up in reception as staff (including consultants) out of multiple doorways come to say 'hello'. It’s amazing how many dog lovers there are who work in hospitals and the NHS.

After this we’re good to go and now have to brave the reception waiting room area and the corridor again. People want to fuss her but we just want to leave this place which has become a second home to us over the years.

We manage to dodge a few other people with a quick smile, wave and make haste for the corridor. The usual comments, smiles, whistles, waves follow us as we go. I have to suddenly stop Sienna and turn her safely towards the wall, putting myself between her and someone that was running up right behind us. So eager were they to see her up close from behind, they nearly trod on her and even knocked into me! Sienna’s safety always comes first and I will always protect her from anything I feel is a little too close for comfort. The lady apologised as she realised she was way too close and I think felt a bit silly nearly pushing an assistance dog handler over just to see their dog. Personal space is very important to someone with a disability.

We make a beeline for the doors and back out into the fresh air to the doggy loo, thank goodness it’s been mowed. The last time we were there I actually lost her in the long grass. Back into the car with a few tasty treats and a nice drink of water just to let her know what a good girl she has been and she settles down to sleep for another 40 winks.

We then head to the nearest park on the way home. One of her favourite spots is right by the sea and she comes off the lead for a jolly good scamper around. So many lovely smells to check out and her ball provides her with a good game of catch me if you can. She eyes the seagulls standing on the grass nearby suspiciously. They are absolutely enormous and totally dwarf her. She leaves them alone, she knows not to chase any animals and she takes the countryside code very seriously.

We find a quiet spot and do a little fun training together. She really enjoys this, and we do a few rally obedience moves and some fun heelwork playing with her ball and loads of fuss. Sausage is the reward today for this and she knows she’s been a good girl.

Two dogs suddenly come thundering towards us from out of nowhere. Even with eyes in the back of your head, it’s hard to keep a track on everything. They are way too big to even contemplate greeting Sienna, so I pick her up. One wayward paw could leave her seriously injured and she only weighs a little over two kilograms. It’s just not worth the risk. The owner shouts at me that his dogs are friendly and there’s no need to pick up my "fluffy little lap dog". Before I can reply, he walks away leaving his huge dogs jumping up at me and snapping inches from Sienna who is firmly planted in my arms.

The dogs are almost pushing me over and my attempts to completely ignore them and turn my back isn’t working. Any minute now I will lose my balance completely as I have serious balance issues that come with my health conditions. My trousers are now muddy and their nails have marked my very easily bruised skin.

Despite very visibly using a walking aid (crutch) for balance, I am left to fend for myself. The owner is now miles away ignoring his dogs and they seem in no hurry to run back to him either. I reach in my pocket and quickly throw the remains of Sienna’s tiny pot of sausage on the ground. The dogs catch a whiff of the scent and eagerly search the grass for any scraps. Meanwhile, I make my getaway, both of us intact but feeling rather battered and bruised. I was left grumbling angrily, “fluffy little lap dog indeed, if only you knew what she can do and how valuable she is to me, to my family and to the NHS!”. Invisible illness is incredibly difficult at times.

With her lead and jacket back on we head back to the car. A very quick stop to the shop is needed on the way home as we need just a few items. It should only take 10 minutes at the very most but everyone wants to ask about her. I had already decided that Sienna has done plenty of socialising already but more importantly is tired. I am also shattered and still a little shaken up after the park incident, so I politely say “I’m very sorry, but she’s working and I’m in a terrible hurry”. Sienna has actually just alerted me again, I need to medicate and reward her. My blood sugar has gone very low. While trying to sort myself out (and Sienna), people still ask to pet her. I explain that I'm unwell, my dog had just alerted me to a severe medical condition and I'm unable to talk right now.

I was struggling with managing a walking aid, my medication bag, my glucose monitor, a loaf of bread and a pint of milk. Sometimes in this situation, it’s easy to just drop everything on the floor. In exchange I got a couple of blank stares, one very angry look, one hurt look, one comment of “sorry I didn’t realise it was a working dog”, and one comment of “that’s not a working dog, it’s not a Labrador”! Where is the simple offer of “do you need any help or a chair?” when you need one?

After downing some sugary sweets, giving Sienna her chicken, retrieving all my stuff from the floor and grabbing what few items I could remember, I made my way to the checkout. Thank goodness for no queue. I went through the checkout process, still trying to increase my blood sugar by munching another jelly bean. I was talking to Sienna telling her what a good girl she is, that we would very shortly be back home for her lunch and a good old sleep. I stroke her and she replies by wagging her tail happily at me. She knows the sugar in the sweets makes me better and gives me the look as if to say, “watch it, you’re not better yet”. The cashier was giving me some very odd looks and I soon realised that it was the usual problem we have at the checkouts. She couldn’t see Sienna and thought that I was having a nice conversation with my own feet. After an explanation and the cashier leaning right over the counter to get look at Sienna, all was well again.

Back home and we have lunch. Blood sugars are fully back to normal and Sienna's pleased to be back home. So am I! She wants to play with her toys so we have a little game. Sienna suddenly stops playing and alerts again by pressing her button. This has a pre-recorded message to tell me I’m not well and I need to quickly check my blood sugar etc. I go into my bedroom wondering what it is now and sit on the bed.

I put my SOS emergency alarm by the bed so she can pull it if/when needed. When she pulls the soft tag, it sends a text and my location to my husband and mum saying I need help.

I lift her up with me and she stands bolt upright just staring at me. I know that look again. The next thing I realise is that I am opening my eyes and feeling very odd. I am lying down on the bed and Sienna is right by me staring at the door with the yellow tag detached from the SOS alarm at her paws. My phone is going mad as my mum and husband were both trying to contact me.

I had passed out and Sienna had pulled the alarm. I felt very unwell and groggy but answer my phone. Sienna is still staring at the door, she knows she's been clever and just wants her chicken reward from the kitchen and a nice cuddle.

All is well in the end. My mum rushes over to help me and check I was okay. Luckily she only lives only two minutes away. I take (more) medication and most importantly, Sienna gets her chicken and cuddles.

We spend the rest of the day having a good chill and sleep in bed at home. The antics of the morning have taken their toll on me. My mum looks after me and Sienna continues to monitor and alert me. We’ve definitely had enough excitement for one day!

Her days vary so much as it depends on how I am feeling myself. She always gets a nice walk and run. She has stayed in hospitals overnight with me and visited some great places of interest, such as Harry Potter Studios, Windsor Castle, the Tower of London, museums, theatres, concerts and eateries. She has been on the Flying Scotsman, on boats, trains, taxis and buses and she often visits London accompanying me on hospital clinic visits.

Recently she has been helping me do my new volunteer job as a GP Health Champion. We have set up a choir for patients with respiratory conditions and I lead the group. I find it exhausting but so fulfilling as teaching is what I used to do before I had to retire. I’ve missed teaching so much and this has given me so much confidence back.

Without Sienna, I could never even contemplate doing this. She helps me to live as normal a life as possible. She keeps me safe and well and I try to do my very best to do the same for her. The most important thing is that she is very carefully monitored by me to make sure that she doesn’t get overworked or overloaded and that she has as much downtime as possible to allow her to de-stress.

‘We’re a team and she has totally changed my life’

Sienna enables me to be alone at home, go out alone and pull the alarm if I’m very unwell and am unable to get help myself. She gives me independence as well as helping me to manage multiple severe health conditions, take the minimum amount of medication needed to stay well and more importantly, to stay out of the hospital.

She has also enabled my husband to return to full-time work again after a two-and-a-half year gap of being my full-time carer. That’s a huge positive change in our lives.

The safe drop in steroid medication has enabled me to lose a huge amount of weight (four stone) and this, in turn, has enabled me to decrease other medication too. She has helped me to have a successful trial of a hydrocortisone pump which has also greatly improved my quality of life. Without her monitoring my conditions, this would have been much riskier for me to try alone. She saves the NHS money every day.

One of the things I often get asked when she’s in working mode is “do you ever cuddle and pet her like a normal dog?” and my answer is “what do you think?”. Of course I do.

She’s a very much loved member of my family. She is a dog first and foremost and does everything pet dogs do. The only difference is that she knows exactly how to behave in all public places and works under very strict rules and regulations to protect the public. She is regularly health checked and insured for her work. We are a team and she has changed my life. She is my world.

Hannah and Sienna are a very special partnership made possible by the charity Medical Detection Dogs.

For over ten years the charity has been training dogs to save lies using their amazing sense of smell. It does this with Medical Alert Assistance Dogs and Bio Detection Dogs, both of which can be trained to detect even the tiniest trace of the smell caused by a medical condition. The Bio Detection Dogs are trained to detect diseases like cancers, Parkinson’s, malaria and bacterial infections.

Medical Alert Assistance Dogs like Sienna, support people with complex health conditions like diabetes, PoTS and severe allergies when they are in danger of having a potentially life-threatening medical event, so they can take the necessary action and prevent hospital admission. Medical Detection Dogs relies solely on the public’s generosity and goodwill and donations from Trusts and Foundations like the players of the People’s Postcode Lottery. To find out more visit www.medicaldetectiondogs.org.uk

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