• Rebecca Fawcett-Smith

Local Diabetic Alert Dog Raises Awareness


When it comes to Assistance Dogs (also known as Service Dogs) most people think of Golden Retrievers, Labradors and German Shepherds. However thanks to local Mini Groodle, Charlie Star, awareness is growing that assistance dogs come in all shapes and sizes.

Since being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age four, Emily Turnbull’s carefree childhood has been punctured quite literally by countless, life-saving finger prick tests. Every night since her diagnosis, her parents Louise and Stephen have set their alarms for 11pm and 2am to rise and test her blood glucose levels.

Desperate for added peace of mind, Louise and Stephen contacted Paws for Diabetics Inc., a charitable, non-profit organisation involved in the training and placement of diabetic alert dogs. Following a lengthy and costly application process, the Turnbull family welcomed Charlie Star into their home and hearts last July.

“It took us two years to save up [for an assistance dog], but it’s definitely worth it because we’ve seen a big change in Emily’s anxiety levels since we got Charlie,” explains Louise. “Much sooner than we expected as well, because we thought it would be at least a year before Charlie would alert us during the night, but within a few months she was getting off Emily’s bed and coming into our bedroom to alert us.”

Falling under the Assistance Dog category of medical alert/medical response, diabetic alert dogs are trained to alert their handlers to low (hypoglycemia) or high (hyperglycemia) blood sugar events before they become life-threatening. Trained to detect subtle changes in Emily’s scent indicating dangerous changes in her blood glucose levels, Charlie will alert Emily (or Louise and Stephen) to take the necessary steps to return Emily’s blood sugar to normal.

“Charlie’s got a big job. Like any normal puppy, she has to be toilet trained and learn commands, but she has to be trained on the medical side of things as well.”

The biggest challenge is teaching Charlie to turn a blind eye to members of the public when she’s on duty. While those who approach Charlie may be well-meaning, their actions are putting Emily at risk. “Because Emily is Charlie’s handler, I leave it up to her to say, ‘No sorry, she’s working,’ and usually that works, and sometimes we get a lot of questions and that’s fine because it’s creating awareness, but then on the other scale of things we get adults who come over and start patting Charlie and when we say she’s working we get a mouthful back. One day we even got reported in Coles because someone thought Charlie was too cute to be an assistance dog.

“What people need to understand is that if a dog is in a shop or somewhere where it shouldn’t be and it’s wearing an assistance dog jacket, whatever breed of dog it is, it is working. If Charlie or any assistance dog gets distracted, then the dog isn’t giving its full attention to its owner, and it could miss picking up on a serious medical issue which could have been avoided.”

Like all learner drivers, Charlie must display a yellow ‘L’ plate for the first twelve months of her training. Once certified, she will undergo an annual Public Access Test (PAT) to make sure she stays safe and effective in public places.

For Louise, Charlie has already proven invaluable not only for the Turnbull family, but also to Bribie Island Diabetes Support Group Inc. of which Louise is a member.

“When Emily’s at school, Charlie goes everywhere with me including the support group meetings, and I often have to ask some of the members to check their blood sugar levels because Charlie’s going crazy alerting. She’s like a little mascot for them.”

Assistance Dog Etiquette

  •  Never pat an assistance dog.

  •  Never feed an assistance dog.

  •  Speak to the person, not the dog.

  •  Do not distract an assistance dog by whistling or making attention seeking gestures/noises.


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