Like many pets and their owners, Kaylene Burnell and her dog Winston are the best of friends. But Kaylene and Winston, the pure-bred whippet, have an extra special bond. Winston is literally a life-saver for Kaylene.
Kaylene and Winston met through the charitable not-for-profit organisation Paws for Diabetics Inc after Kaylene had been living with type 1 diabetes for almost 30 years. Being hypoglycaemia unaware, Kaylene does not experience the symptoms most people do when their blood glucose levels get dangerously low.
“I have an amazing family and I love them all dearly,” Kaylene said. “I spent a lot of time in hospital and when I wasn’t in hospital my family would have to monitor me very closely. My husband Andrew ended up having to leave work and become my full-time carer as I was scared to go out on my own.
“It was during one of my many hospital admissions that my nurse told me about Paws for Diabetics Inc and when I was discharged from hospital we joined the organisation.”
In September 2008 Winston, a puppy at the time, arrived at Perth airport and was put to work straight away. When Kaylene and her family arrived at the airport to collect him, unbeknown to her or any of the family, Kaylene was experiencing a hypo. As soon as Winston was released from his puppy crate he alerted her, so Kaylene did a blood glucose test and confirmed what Winston had told her.
“He saved my life at our very first meeting,” Kaylene recalls.” Since then Winston has saved my life so many times that I have lost count.”
Dogs have a naturally heightened sense of smell; they have around 220 million scent receptors in their nose as opposed to the five million that humans have. Professional trainers have learned to harness these skills by training dogs to recognise certain smells. These include the different scents the human body produces when their blood glucose levels are too high or too low.
The specially-trained dogs give their owners warning well in advance of an impending hypoglycaemic episode, allowing for prompt treatment.
“Winston will alert me in various ways depending on the situation and where we are,” Kaylene said. “Sometimes he will just sit and look intently at me, sometimes he will get my attention by softly whimpering and licking my hands, face or feet.
“He will also alert me by tapping me with his paw, putting his paws on my lap or nudging me. Sometimes if we are out walking, he will stop and stand in front of me to stop me from walking any further until I have tested my blood glucose levels.”
Despite having an insulin pump fitted a number of years ago, Kaylene sometimes doesn’t hear the alarm due to mild hearing loss, but Winston does and will alert her to it. Winston will often alert her before a CGM has even registered that there is a problem.
“Winston and I have been a successful working team for eight years now,” Kaylene said. “Going out in public is easier now as I’m a lot more confident, and I can do a lot more without my family having to worry about me, because they know that as long as Winston is with me then I am safe.
“My family and I thank God every day for Winston. We are also very thankful to Winston’s breeder and Paws for Diabetics Inc for all the love, care and support that they have given us over the years and for helping me to train Winston to be the wonderful diabetes alert service dog that he is today.”
Kaylene now volunteers with Paws for Diabetics Inc acting as Secretary, Fundraising Coordinator Australia-wide, as well as the Area Coordinator for Western Australia. Her husband Andrew is a committee member and the whole family attends markets and events, making and selling various handmade items to raise funds for the organisation.