Tato's pancreas stopped producing insulin four and a half years ago, and the paediatricians at the Costa del Sol Hospital weren't able to explain to his parents the reason why. The boy, who turned eight years old last December, was later diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.
Everything changed from that moment onwards for the family from Marbella, who ever since have been keeping an eye on the sugar levels of the little boy. The quality of life for this household started to pick up a few weeks ago when they adopted Turco, a spaniel being trained to detect and warn of rises and falls in sugar levels, a problem which Tato has been suffering from for a number of years.
The initiative is a pilot programme developed by Marbella Canina, and more specifically by the president of the association, Sergio Moya, a professional trainer who looks for people who may be interested in the programme. What's more he is not charging for training the puppy for little Tato, who has consequently become the first owner of a medical alert dog in Marbella.
Whilst there is no official register of trained dogs in Spain, the president of Marbella Canina says that there are only about thirty medical alert dogs that have been trained to detect certain types of cancer, diabetes or epilepsy through their sense of smell.
Decompensation is more difficult to recognise at night time, making it the most critical period of time for Tato. As a result his parents have spent many nights since he was diagnosed awake, making sure that a drop in sugar levels does not compromise the health of the little boy.
Torcuato Germán Pérez, Tato's father, who is also a member of the Costa del Sol diabetic association, ADISOL, explains that he cannot wait to see the new dog in action. "If you don't spot the hypoglycaemia in time, it can cause major problems, such as inducing a coma," he adds.
Moya is confident that in six months the dog will start to reliably indicate rises and falls in the child's sugar levels by barking, "just like any other training based on smell". But what will Tato gain from this? Most importantly, time. The child and his parents depend on quick reaction time to measure his sugar levels and take the necessary decisions: regulating the levels either by injecting insulin or more simply by drinking some juice. In this way, Tato's barking will prevent his owner from suffering extreme pain. "You have to understand that he is a dog and therefore can make mistakes, but having him here will allow my son's life to get back to normal," his father explains. It is estimated that a trained dog is able to detect both hyperglycaemia and hypoglycaemia, in other words, increases and decreases in sugar levels, 20 minutes in advance.
Under Moya's supervision the dog has started an impromptu and daily training programme in which he is given samples of the child's sweat and saliva to smell and to bark when the levels of sugar reach certain values. "We are teaching the dog to give a response according to a certain smell. In reality, the dog doesn't know if it is an increase or decrease," Moya states. Turco's trainer adds that the smell which they have created is simply a reference for him so that he knows when to bark.
The dog's training will consist of games and positive reinforcement, with short and consecutive exercises taking place not only on the streets, but also, more importantly, in the child's home. To avoid making mistakes, the dog is learning to distinguish between different smells, for example the combination of cologne and the sweat of his owner. The training will continue throughout the dog's life, with sessions decreasing in frequency over time.
However, this type of training is not cheap. The trainers charge at least 6,000 euros for this type of programme. Nevertheless, the training for Turco will not cost Tato's family anything after Moya presented the project as a pilot programme for ADISOL.
Tato's father recognises that his son will have to get used to the hassle of having a dog. The father himself only found out about these specially-trained dogs that can detect diabetes three years ago when speaking to a friend. It was an idea that started going round my head and which Moya is now putting into place. "We were lucky that Sergio contacted us. We went with him to a nursery in Ubrique in Cadiz where he chose Turco from a litter of puppies. We also considered ourselves lucky when we learned that he was going to be trained as a medical alert dog," Tato's father says.
Turco's trainer explains that these special types of dogs for diabetes have to be specifically trained for every individual. Moya mentions that he chose Turco as he is a playful puppy, with a high level of concentration and a strong sense of smell, three qualities which have made this pet more than a man's best friend for Tato.