Meter, a diabetes alert dog, fits right in with first-grader at Winecoff Elementary

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 24, 2014

KANNAPOLIS — Meter, a 2-year-old black Labrador retriever, is like any other student at Winecoff Elementary School.
A constant companion of first-grader Caden Farmer, Meter walks in line down the halls and waits patiently while Caden and other students use the restrooms. She keeps teacher Sarah Grant company during recess.
In the classroom while Grant goes through the day’s lessons, Meter lies on her own rug in a corner by the door. At lunch, Meter rests underneath Caden’s feet and infrequently gobbles up a piece of food that falls to the floor.
She’s an otherwise well-disciplined student, who hardly ever makes a peep.
It’s when Meter becomes antsy or walks over to Grant and alerts her with a paw or nudge of the nose that you are reminded the specially trained dog is working.
On this particular day, she has informed Grant and Caden’s mother, who has stopped by the classroom, that Caden’s blood sugar levels are high.
Caden, 7, has type 1 diabetes and his optimum target level for blood sugar is 140. But an earlier meter reading — after one of those all-too-routine pricks of his finger — was 316.
It drops to 208 in 30 minutes, then falls again to 177 on the next test.
While Caden’s blood sugar is high but getting closer to where he should be, the rapidness of the decline still has his mother — and Meter, a diabetes alert dog — concerned. It’s something they will watch carefully the rest of the day and night.
Kristen Farmer can’t say enough about having Meter with her son at Winecoff. Caden has not fainted or experienced any seizures since Meter has been attending school with him.
“It gives me a sense of security,” she says.
Grant and Dr. James Davis, principal at Winecoff, say Meter’s presence in the classroom and school overall has not been disruptive.
Her students are actually protective of Meter, Grant says. They tell other students she’s a service dog at work, and everyone learned quickly not to pet or feed Meter, who gets a snack from Caden only after a meter reading.
“She’s our 22nd student,” Grant adds, nodding to Meter’s picture on a hall bulletin board with the rest of her class. “It’s great. I love it. The kids did better than I ever could have imagined.”
When Caden’s blood sugar levels are high or going up, Meter paws Farmer or Grant. When they are low or going down, expect a nose nudge.
“She is pretty spot on,��� Kristen Farmer says.
A too-high level and Caden gets a dose of insulin from the machine on his hip. Juice and a snack usually help him if his blood sugar is low.
Steven and Kristen Farmer have had Meter since she was 4 months old. She came specially trained as a diabetes alert dog from Warren Retrievers, based in Virginia. Her cost was $20,000, of which the Farmers have paid all but about $3,000.
Labrador retrievers have been trained and used as diabetic alert dogs since 2003.
With her constant monitoring of Caden Farmer, Meter raises the comfort level for Grant and school nurse Meredith Jones.
“He really gets into an activity, and he won’t realize his sugar is going down,” Grant says.
Meter — the name comes from her detection abilities — will even alert them in advance, instinctively knowing Caden’s blood sugar levels are going to spike up or down in the next 30 to 45 minutes.
It’s Jones’ first experience with a diabetes alert dog. She checks Caden four times a day no matter what, but Meter is her watchdog when she can’t be present.
“I am sold on the idea,” she says.
Kristen Farmer says having Meter on campus daily was a learning process for everyone. Before Meter started full-time, Kristen would drop in with the dog to have lunch with Caden and the other students. They also made visits to the classroom and made Meter well familiar with Grant.
When Meter was still at home, even though the Farmers live close to two miles away from Winecoff, she would still alert Kristen when she sensed Caden’s blood sugar at school was in a danger zone.
She usually was right.
“It’s scary,” Farmer says of diabetes. “People say it’s manageable, but it’s not, especially in children. It’s a very hard disease.”
Caden and Meter are close companions.
“I feel great when she’s around,” Caden says.
Meter attends all of Caden’s football practices and games. In school, Meter will walk to the side exit door if she needs to go to the bathroom, and Caden accompanies her on those short trips.
Caden makes sure Meter eats a healthy — and expensive — diet that includes vegetables, fruits and boiled eggs. In turn, Meter has been trained to open the refrigerator at home and retrieve Caden’s juice boxes.
They sleep together at night.
“She has definitely saved him in the night numerous times,” Kristen says.
The Farmer household is a busy place. Caden has a 14-year-old brother, sisters who are 6 and 5, and the Farmers are expecting a baby. They also have a golden retriever named Comet, who gets along fine with Meter.
Kristen Farmer says she looks for opportunities to give Meter some down time. “Sometimes you can see it in her face that she needs that break, because she works hard,” Kristen says.
Davis, the Winecoff principal, says Meter’s presence has fostered a greater sense of community at Winecoff. The school raised $4,000 recently in an annual fundraiser for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.
“It made it very personal, in a great way,” Davis says.
Besides Caden, Winecoff has two other students with diabetes.
Grant will be teaching second grade next year, making it possible for Caden and Meter to be with her again.
“We have this down,” Grant says.
Meanwhile, Kristen Farmer continues to volunteer at Winecoff and praises the day Meter came into Caden’s life.
“He’ll never, ever, as long as I’m alive, go without a dog,” she says.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or People wishing to make a contribution toward the remaining balance on Meter can make a check payable to Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers, P.O. Box 647, Madison, Va., 22727. Make sure the memo line of the check says “Caden Farmer.”