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Service dogs for diabetics or just pricey pets?

Lotus, a diabetic service dog. (Photo: WJLA/Alex Brauer)

WASHINGTON (WJLA) – For people dealing with diabetes, having a reliable tool to signal dangerous highs and lows is key. And many are turning to a new option: alert dogs. But some customers of a Virginia company say the ones they signed up to get are nothing more than overpriced pets.

The Flores family of Florida hoped Lotus the dog would offer much more than love for 13-year-old diabetic Joel.

His mother, Jovana, told ABC7, “In hindsight, now, maybe I should have been a little bit smarter, but you're looking for any bit of hope.”

Hope is something promised on the website of a Virginia company advertising miracles. It’s called Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers. Happy clients who have worked with the company emailed the 7 On Your Side I-Team to tell us Warren’s diabetic alert dogs are "priceless" and a "blessing". Others told us dogs from the company "immediately alert" and "saved my child more times than I can count.”

Dr. Jonathan Beach, a physician and a diabetic, is one of the company’s satisfied customers.

Explaining his dog’s skills, Beach said, “He is consistent in any time I'm not paying attention to my blood sugar, alerting me. He’s imperative to me in that way.”

But there are critics. The Virginia Office of the Attorney General has an ongoing investigation with 30 complaints against the company. The 7 On Your Side I-Team asked to review the complaints, but was told they were still active and not public record.

Haymarket resident Michele Hunter is among those who have complained to the AG. She signed an $18,000 contract for one of Warren Retrievers’ diabetic alert dogs. But on our visit to the Hunters’ home, Sugar the dog appeared more interested in playing ball than checking blood sugar. When Hunter’s monitor showed 285, what she considered a significant high, Sugar did not alert and went to sit in the corner with her ball.

In court documents, Hunter and the Flores family say their puppies didn’t get the training they were promised. After both stopped paying, Warren Retrievers sued them, along with families in at least 10 other states. A judge recently ruled against the company in one case, saying Warren "fraudulently induced" the family into a contract, making misrepresentations about the dog's abilities, which the court record claimed should instinctively be ready to alert.

“She was not going to bear the responsibility of making sure my son was safe,” Flores said. “Which was what was told to me.”

For three weeks we asked Dan Warren, the owner of the company, to participate in an on-camera interview. He declined. His attorney, Richmond-based John Russell, told ABC7 it offers no proof to clients that they are getting a fully-trained dog, because that’s not their method. Instead, he says Warren Retrievers supplies a dog and then works on training during visits with families in their homes. Russell says success for the company’s service dogs relies heavily on family involvement.

And Warren Retrievers says its methods have worked. Russell says 136 diabetic alert dogs have successfully gone through the company’s training program, getting public access certification in addition to scent training. As for proof of its effectiveness, Russell says the proof is in the hundreds of clients who love service dogs supplied and trained by the company.

A look at the Warren Retrievers website shows the company said its methods are backed by science, proven in a 2013 University of Virginia study. But a closer look at the materials shows the research it references is actually a preliminary survey, with subjective responses provided by Warren Retrievers. Once that was pointed out to Russell, language on the site was changed.

There is emerging science in the field of diabetic alert dog training, but limited research. Currently, no government agencies regulate the industry to assure that alert dogs sold to the public are properly trained and effective as a service animal. And companies employ a variety of methods for training. As a result, Debby Kay, the executive director of the Diabetic Alert Dog Alliance says there can be potential problems.

Kay, who spent decades training detection dogs for federal agencies, now breeds and trains diabetic alert dogs (DADs). She is also working in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania, which launched an effort to begin research and training involving diabetic alert dogs in 2013. In November 2014, under Kay’s mentorship, the program graduated its first DAD. Dogs involved in that program, as well as in Kay’s personal business, are trained to detect highs and lows in blood sugar using saliva samples taken from Type 1 diabetics. And it’s a lengthy process.

“It takes anywhere from a year to 18 months to train these dogs and get them out to the point where they can work in public access,” Kay said.

The partnership between Kay and PennVet also includes the development of industry standards, so clients interested in purchasing a dog end up with one that can not only detect dangerous changes in blood sugar, but also meet public access standards laid out for other types of service dogs. A primary focus of the standards is testing that Kay says will help to expose fraudulent companies whose alert dogs cannot live up to the minimum requirements.

Dogs that meet the standards laid out by the DAD Alliance not only have to pass public access tests proving they can behave in places like restaurants and stores, but also have to go through rigorous scent discrimination tests, proving they can effectively detect the highs and lows of diabetics. The testing is also videotaped and reviewed by a committee of trainers.

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