Honey’s Garden for Medical Alert Dogs

Grace - Zero to Hero

Written by Lucy Breytenbach BSc (Hons) Animal Science Behaviour and Welfare Canine Behaviour Practitioner

Professional photographs by Strike a Pose Photography

When we decided to test Grace for service dog work, the staff laughed at us and said: “Huh? Crazy Grace?! Are you sure?” But there was something special about this little dog that I just loved…

Something special

Black-and-white Grace was around a year old when we met her at the Animal Anti-Cruelty League in Bellville in March 2017. She’d been surrendered as unwanted at eight months of age and had spent the past four months in a kennel at the shelter.

From over a metre away, we could see Grace was scenting the air and trying to smell us, and she didn’t take her eyes off us (well, between bouncing off the walls – as if to say “pick me, pick me!”).

So, we tested her for trainability, a fantastic sense of smell and a loving nature, amongst other traits. And although she needed a lot of work, there was a sparkle in her eye that told me she just wanted to please me and had so much to give. I knew I had to give her a chance.

Out of the ten dogs we tested that day, we chose “Crazy Grace” and a little puppy named Xara.

A nose for trouble

The future held something important for Grace: she was to be trained as a Diabetic Alert Dog (DAD) at our Medical Alert Dog SA training facility, Honey’s Garden. DADs are trained to alert diabetic owners of low blood sugar events before a dangerous situation occurs.

Dogs have over 200 million scent sensors (also called olfactory receptors) in their noses – humans have around 5 million. By using their incredible sense of smell, dogs can identify the specific scent in their owners’ breath and perspiration before they become hypoglycaemic. They can then be trained to associate this scent with a reward, give their owners a trained alert signal, and be persistent about it so that their owner can seek help in time.

This alert becomes especially important for people who have developed hypoglycaemic unawareness – a complication of diabetes where the blood sugar drop doesn’t trigger the usual symptoms (such as sweating or anxiety) which would usually alert the patient.

A priceless bond

But it goes beyond training a dog to alert people for treats. An intense bond develops with their human carer. This, paired with the ability to recognise changes in our physical behaviour before we do, makes a diabetic alert dog an amazing addition to a diabetic management team.

As a result, these dogs can give priceless peace of mind to families with diabetic children, as well as diabetic adults. Across the world, DADs have prevented thousands of glycaemic episodes and changed the lives of children and adults everywhere.

Companion Animal Psychology UK has studied the psychological benefits of owning a DAD and found that owners experienced significantly less hypoglycaemic episodes, reduced paramedic call-outs, improved independence and even described having a DAD as “an enhanced quality of life”. Clearly, the psychological advantages of having a service dog are second to none.

Although they will never be a replacement for current protocols, checks made by a Diabetic Alert Dog can certainly be an extremely beneficial, added safety net.

They can bring a sense of independence and comfort to anyone suffering with the disease, as well as being a long-term friend and companion.

Dogs in training

Honey’s Garden in Cape Town strives to assist as many South African families as possible in obtaining a Medical Alert Dog. Dogs are carefully selected and attend “school” every week; they also spend evenings and weekends with trained fosters (or their new owners). Aside from diabetic alert dogs, we also train seizure response dogs for people with epilepsy and emotional support dogs for trauma and counselling centres.

These special dogs have several “subjects”, including basic obedience, ignoring distractions, and good social skills. They need to achieve the KUSA Canine Good Citizenship Award and pass stringent exams.

Although the training of these dogs is costly, the aim is to make it accessible for all by keeping training costs low and making use of sponsors and donations. Hill’s Pet Nutrition is currently the main food sponsor for dogs in training.

Through the programme, dogs are sourced – many rescued to be given a second chance – trained and matched with suitable new owners.

“Crazy Grace” finds her place in the world

After a few months of training Grace, I was approached by a family from Gauteng with a two-year-old son with Type 1 diabetes. They were lucky enough to receive a donation that paid for Grace’s training.

They needed a dog that could keep up with their busy lifestyle and three young sons! I just knew Grace would be perfect – but first we’d have to introduce them to see. They came to visit in Cape Town, and wow, what a match – our Crazy Grace fitted in perfectly with the busy Fourie family and so the process began.

Grace was set to leave Cape Town to live with her new family in January 2018 and, as Jamie is only two years old, Grace has been trained to alert his mother, Katie, to his low blood sugar events. With a lot of training, praise and encouragement, Grace will make a fantastic asset to the Fourie family diabetes team!

She’ll even be going to nursery school with Jamie and practised her job with local toddlers and preschools! After full-time training for nine months, Grace will continue to train with her new family (and, of course, our continued support) for four more months before being tested and certified as a Medical Alert Dog.

DAD school needs your help

Animals are my passion and life, and dogs completely steal my heart! It’s known that dogs will naturally console people, improve mental health and ultimately give unconditional love. Pets have been used as therapy for years; the lessons they can teach us are endless. The fact that their incredible sense of smell can be utilised to help people in need is the cherry on top of the cake!

I don’t know about you, but I’m beyond excited to see how they can continue to help us.

I believe that the right to have a medical alert dog should be extended to everybody who needs it in SA. Being from the UK, I was shocked to find out that training for these dogs was non-existent here and so I endeavour to make this happen for SA.

We’re currently using our personal funds to set up the centre. However, in order for it to meet the highest international standards, we will need to rely on sponsorship and donations for start-up and maintenance of facilities. With these donated funds, we strive to assist as many South African families as possible.

Should you wish to get involved, or donate to our incredible cause and new adventure for SA, please contact me, Lucy Breytenbach, on 072 250 0336, or email info@medicalalertdogs.co.za for the possible areas in which you can help. Or visit www.medicalalertdogs.co.za and www.facebook.com/medicalalertdogs for donation information.


By Katie Fourie, Grace’s new owner

On the 6th of September 2016, our ten-month-old little boy, Jamie, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. And it’s been one hell of a time.

From shock, anger, confusion, lots of very fast learning and so much more, diabetes has changed our lives. It’s hard. But it’s also made us stronger. Jamie inspires us every day with his bravery. He is a happy little boy and is my hero.

Honey’s Garden

The miracle of Grace started just under a year ago. I was looking at diabetic alert dogs – not really too seriously as they’re incredibly expensive and at the time only available from overseas. Type 1 diabetes is a 24-hour-a-day job – constant blood checks, carb counting and insulin dosing. It’s very unpredictable and no day is ever the same. Having a DAD (Diabetic Alert Dog) would ease so much pressure off the family. 

That’s when I stumbled across Honey’s Garden online where I discovered that they were just starting to train DADs in South Africa! I immediately contacted Lucy and she emailed me the information, costs, etc. for me to look over.  

I looked at them and printed out the forms. But that’s really where it ended. They sat on my desk and I would chat to my husband, Dorian, about it often and we would sit and talk about how we could finance such a “luxury”. 

A miracle happened

Anyone who knows me will agree that, when I get an idea, I can’t really let it go and, me being me, I couldn’t stop thinking about all of this. I chatted to my sister and cousin about it but, still, a few weeks passed, the forms still sat on the desk and life ticked over. We would do this. Just not now – it wasn’t financially possible. 

Then, the miracle happened. It was a random weeknight with me making supper, Dorian finishing up work at his desk and the kids watching TV… just an ordinary night – but I’ll never forget it. My phone rang and it was my sister (who has three children), which was unusual – the golden rule is no calls during “suicide hour” unless, of course, it’s VERY important. 

What could possibly be so important to call when you have hungry kids, pending bath time, etc.?

She asked me if I was sitting down. I said I was (I wasn’t – I was actually getting something out of the freezer!). “Katie!” she exclaimed. “Jason (our cousin from Texas, USA) has just deposited the money for Grace into my account! I’ll be transferring it to Honey’s Garden when I get off the phone with you.”

I was speechless. All I could do was cry. I had no words to express how I was feeling. Dorian was so worried. I was crying and I just couldn’t compose myself enough to tell him. The rest of that night is a blur of joy and tears.

The miracle of Grace

Grace has been with us for a month now and has fit so beautifully into our family. She follows Jamie around and is so close to live alerting. She walks the boys to school in the morning (with Mom, of course) and spends time with the kids in Jamie’s class. We’re trying to get the kids used to having her around so she becomes just another classmate and will be able to go to school with Jamie to look after him there.  

Anyone who understands this disease will know what it means to have this opportunity. We’ll be able to sleep soundly again knowing that Jamie has his “guardian angel” to watch over him and that he’ll be safe. It’s a feeling that cannot be expressed.

We will forever be in debt to you, Jason and Angie, and all at Honey’s Garden. Our journey is now beginning!