Diabetes dogs sniff out trouble

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 7, 2012

Last Friday, Kimberly Eagle almost didn’t know what to do with herself.
“I’m excited,” she said. “My heart’s racing. I feel like I’m having a baby.”
Everybody’s excited to get a new puppy, since there’s no love like puppy love. But for two local families who got four-month-old black labrador retrievers last Friday, that love is likely to be a little stronger. That’s because they are dogs with the ability to save the lives of their most vulnerable family members – children with type 1 diabetes. Kimberly and her family – husband Steven, son Seth and daughter Abigail – were waiting to meet Dash, Abigail’s new diabetes alert dog, for the first time.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” Kimberly said. “We’ve waited so long for this.”
Although Abigail knew she was getting a dog, Kimberly and Steve wanted to make the first meeting a surprise for their daughter, so Friday morning, 4-year-old Abigail got up early to go to breakfast with her grandparents. Shortly after 9, they pulled back into the driveway. Dash was there waiting with his trainer, Jennifer Fair.
As Abigail turned the corner and saw Dash for the first time, her eyebrows shot up and her mouth formed a silent “O.”
Soon, Dash, wriggly and nervous in a new environment (and wetting the sidewalk in excitement), was in Abigail’s lap. Dash got down to business almost immediately. Within minutes of meeting Abby, he began to paw gently at her. He’d been taught to do just that by his trainer, who will help the Eagles continue training Dash.
And that pawing? It meant that Abigail’s blood sugar was at an unhealthy level. Through his sense of smell, Dash had sniffed out high blood sugar.
When a quick check confirmed it, Fair showed the Eagles how to go into reinforcement mode, to let the young dog know he was doing the right thing at the right time: “Good high, Dash, good high!”
Diabetic alert dogs are trained to alert before the diabetic is in serious danger, sniffing out a change in blood sugar before it progresses to an unhealthy level. And that detection can occur 20 minutes before a glucose monitoring system will register a problem. Early detection of an imbalance is extremely important because low blood sugar can result in coma, while high blood sugar over an extended period of time can lead to kidney, liver, eye damage or stroke. Untreated, high and low blood glucose levels can lead to death.
As Dash gets older, he can be trained to perform additional services for Abigail. For example, he can be trained to retrieve a juice box, medicine or testing supplies or even call 911.
For the first few weeks, the focus for the Eagles will be on Abigail bonding with Dash, who will be her almost constant companion. To facilitate the bonding process, Abigail will be hand feeding Dash for several weeks.
Early Friday afternoon, Dash had an appointment with Rowan Animal Clinic, which will be providing his vet care.
It was also time for another emotional meeting. Fair also had with her a female lab named Meter, who was meeting her new family, the Farmers, for the first time. She will be the service dog for Caden Farmer, who, like Abigail, has type 1 diabetes. Also like Abigail, his blood sugar fluctuates wildly and rapidly, putting his health at risk.
As the whole Farmer family walked into Rowan Animal Clinic and spotted Meter, Kristen Farmer’s eyes welled up as she met her son’s new protector.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” she said.
Meter snuggled with Caden, who smiled and buried his face in her fur.
gggAfter almost a week the two families can’t say enough good things about their new family members.
When asked how Dash was working out, Kimberly said, “I absolutely love this dog. I would do this all over again. It’s so worth it.”
She shared a story about how her husband, Steven, took Dash to the gas station (without Abigail). As they were standing in line, Dash began alerting, whining and acting upset.
Steven was a little embarrassed, Kimberly said. Finally, he asked if anyone in the vicinity was diabetic.
The woman in front of him said yes, she had type 1 diabetes.
Steven explained what he thought Dash was doing – alerting to a dangerous blood sugar level – and told her she might want to do a check.
“She checked and she was at 283,” Kimberly said. “She started crying. She was absolutely amazed.” And before she left the gas station, she got Steven to give her the information she needed to look into getting her own dog.
As for Abigail, Dash is catching her drops in blood sugar before they’re dangerous, Kimberly says.
“I can’t say anything but good things about this dog,” she said.
The Farmers are just as thrilled with Meter, who, like Dash, not only alerts to Caden’s blood sugar fluctuations but to those of anyone in the general vicinity.
During a fundraiser at Sweet Frog, Kristen says that Meter began alerting to high blood sugar – not Caden’s but Amarion Smyre’s. Amarion will soon be getting a diabetic alert dog of his own.
Caden started school recently at Winecoff Elementary, and for now, Meter won’t be with him. Eventually, after her training is complete and she is fully under Caden’s control, she will stay with Caden at school.
On Wednesday, Kristen said, while Caden was at school – which isn’t far from the Farmers’ home – Meter began “freaking out and whining” and would not be consoled.
Not long after, Caden’s school called and told Kristen that his blood sugar was very high – 394. She’s convinced that Meter’s whining was actually an alert to Caden’s fluctuation.
Those who train diabetes alert dogs report that they are capable of alerting from a five-mile range.
Meter’s obedience is perfect, Kristen says. Meter will sit quietly while Caden jumps on the trampoline, keeping an eye on him.
“She’s awesome,”Kristen says, adding that Meter has even bonded with Comet, the family’s golden retriever. But it’s Caden that is the center of her life now.
“He loves her,” Kristen said. “We love her. She’s everything I knew she would be. I’m still real emotional about it.”
Dash and Meter come from Warren Retrievers, a Virginia-based business that has a non-profit philanthropic arm called the Guardian Angel Service Dog program that helps families with fundraising efforts. Owner Dan Warren explained that his business began training dogs to be used to detect narcotics and explosives for Homeland Security and police departments. In recent years, he’s also turned his attention to training diabetic alert dogs, and Warren Retrievers has become a leader in the field.
Training dogs to detect diabetes is a relatively new phenomenon. The first animal trained to be a diabetic alert dog, in 2003, was a California dog named Armstrong. Warren saw the potential and realized that he had the raw material – healthy retrievers, which make excellent service animals. Warren placed his first dog in 2007, and now, Warren Retrievers places about 300 dogs annually, serving diabetics in this country and overseas.
Service dogs like Dash are expensive. The Eagles and Farmers must come up with about $20,000 each for their dogs and the associated support costs.
The Eagles have raised about $12,000, the Farmers $8,000. They’ve had some fundraisers and will likely have more.
If you would like to help the families raise the rest of the money needed to pay for their dogs, you can make a donation through the Guardian Angel Service Dogs website, www.guardianangelservicedogs.org.
You can also send a check to Guardian Angel Service Dogs, P.O. Box 910, Orange VA 22960 with “Abigail Eagle Family” or “Caden Farmer Family” in the memo line.
For more information on how to donate, call 540-543-2307.For more information, go to diabetesalertdogs.com