What’s a DAD?
No, not a dad, as in Father’s Day, but a DAD. Most of us in the Wildrose community know, but I am continually surprised to find many folks who are unfamiliar with the work of Wildrose’s lifesaving Labradors—Diabetic Alert Dogs (DADs). Just within the last few days, I came upon three people who weren’t in the know—a long-time local businessperson, a college student, and a young professional. This last person, a bright, twenty-something accountant, who lives in a large Midwestern city, visited when he came back home for his sister’s graduation. As much as this savvy guy knew about social media, the youth culture scene, and contemporary events, he went blank when I mentioned that I was working with families of Type 1 Diabetics, who were telling their stories of dealing with the disease, and were using Diabetic Alert Dogs.
“Using what?” he asked politely. I know that right now the Wildrose families who use DADs are smiling knowingly, as they read this. In telling their stories they all talk about how many times they have to answer people’s questions about their dog companions. And each time I have read their statements (and sensed their exasperation) I thought I understood how they felt. But this recent spate of inquiries has sensitized me more to the lack of knowledge the general public has of service dog companions’ work. And behind that ignorance is also a lack of understanding of the continuous medical care required for someone with Type 1 Diabetes. As Angie Simonton notes: “I truly believe it is hard for people outside of the family to understand the gravity of diabetes and then to understand the level of care and security these amazing dogs provide.”
As I mentioned, most folks in the Wildrose community are well aware of the Diabetic Alert Dog program. In fact, there’s a good bit of crossover between the gundog and the DAD programs. Some dogs, for instance, are dually trained. Within our group of storytellers Duane Miller hunts with his dog, Hatch, as well as using him as a DAD. Also, Devon Wright went pheasant hunting with her family and her dog, Olive, who is dually trained. Olive alerted her during the hunt. (Check this blog’s archives for a story on this event.) In addition, Charlie and Ruby were trained as gundogs before becoming DADs.
Also, hunters with Wildrose gundogs are generous supporters of the DAD Program. Quite a few gundog handlers or trainers have donated resources that were not monetary but were still indescribably meaningful: JoeDan Robinson, an Associate Trainer, raised and trained Juniper. Another Associate Trainer, Jay Lowry raised and trained Ruby, Charlie, Bailey, and Zeke.
In addition, just in the last few years I am aware of hunters donating large sums to assist with DAD training and placement through donations to the Wildrose Diabetic Alert Dog Foundation.
Nevertheless, because this knowledge and support are not widespread, this article will briefly address some issues of Type 1 Diabetes, introduce you to some of the members of our Wildrose DAD community, and explain the work that our lifesaving Labradors do. Later articles will address more of the many issues involving DADs, but here’s a start.
Type 1 Diabetes
Three million Americans suffer from Type 1 Diabetes, an autoimmune disease that destroys the beta cells in the pancreas that are responsible for producing insulin. Death casts its shadow over each of these seriously ill people. Because these folks look healthy, it’s hard for us to understand the medical challenges that they face every day. Imagine that, because your pancreas no longer works to supply insulin, your blood sugar (also referred to as blood glucose or BG) level could rise or fall suddenly. What’s worse, you can neither predict these changes, nor can you feel any side effects—until you are dangerously sick. With extended high levels you might suffer diabetic ketoacidosis and fall into coma and possibly die. In the case of a low you might likely experience seizure and death.
Consider the effect that this condition would have on your daily life. You could suffer an attack while swimming, riding a bike, or driving a car. You could be enjoying dinner and a movie with friends. Or you could be sound asleep in the middle of the night. Because these incidents could occur at any time and might have severe consequences, you might choose to reduce your activities and try to stay safe at home. You might become reclusive or depressed. And still you would have little control over this unpredictable condition. Tom Arsenault explains how his frequent blackouts affected him: “Calls to 911 to revive me occurred on average every forty-five days. I began to know the local firefighters by name! I also became increasingly paranoid, fearful about being alone. Because I couldn’t feel the swings in my blood sugar, ordinary chores like shopping and driving were so filled with fear of another episode that I wouldn’t do them unless accompanied. The theatre, movies, driving—all the ordinary things people do every day—carried new fear, which only exacerbated my condition.”
Imagining that you have this unpredictable malady can give you some idea of what people, like Tom, face with Type 1 Diabetes. The diabetic suffers from lack of insulin production, which can lead to sudden changes in blood sugar levels. So many things contribute to blood sugar levels from emotions to exercise and from eating carbohydrates to getting a cold. Several times emergency responders rushed Sharon Stinson to the hospital when she fell into diabetic comas. All of the parents in our Wildrose group, the around-the-clock caregivers for their children, have frantically administered Glucagon shots or force-fed sugar drinks in desperate attempts to steady erratic glycemic events. Like Capri Smith, all of them have gone on daredevil car rides to the ER, desperate to save their daughters’ lives. Kitty Berry attests, “Battling diabetes is an unimaginable fight. Every day. 24/7/365. The fight requires every bit of energy and faith we can muster.”
Monitoring blood glucose levels all of the time, day and night, is a continual activity for these diabetics and their caregivers. The goal is to maintain tight control over the glycemic range, minimizing fluctuations so as to maintain normal activities and to prevent any of the several harmful side effects of wide, erratic sugar swings. Even with modern insulin monitoring and delivery systems, Type 1 Diabetics continue to struggle to achieve healthy monthly averages, a key to long-term health.
A diabetic alert dog, which we call a DAD, is a tool in diabetes management. Each dog is trained to notify the diabetic or the caregiver of low and high blood glucose levels, thereby allowing them to promptly make necessary corrections to avert the episode or lessen its severity. A hypo- or hyperglycemic attack can lead to a seizure, coma, or death, making these well-trained dogs true lifesavers. The DAD’s performance can result in tighter glycemic control, which decreases the likelihood of devastating, long-term complications, including kidney failure, retinopathy, neuropathy, and heart disease. As diabetics and their caregivers struggled with this relentless disease, they turned to dogs as effective monitors of blood sugar changes.
Those who came to Wildrose seeking diabetic alert dogs to hold death at bay traveled a path that pioneer Rachel Thornton had cleared for them. Rachel and her eleven-year-old daughter, Abi, toughed it out, training Mr. Darcy to alert for Abi. Then Rachel and Wildrose owners, Mike and Cathy Stewart, created opportunities for other diabetics and their caregivers to use dogs as medical assistants to help them monitor their levels of blood sugar and live more normal lives.
Mr. Darcy, Teddy Bear, Olive, Gracie, Ruby, Charlie, Keeper, Willow, Juniper, Drake, and Hatch—these canines are the masters of scent, the heroes of their owners’ real-life dramas. These DADs consistently alert their owners to glucose level changes more frequently and sooner than the mechanical monitors that the diabetics wear. Some report that dog alerts are twenty minutes ahead of the monitors. What do these precious minutes mean to the diabetic or her caregiver? In the case of rapidly falling blood levels, it can enable one to take preventive action to head off a precipitous drop before it plunges dangerously low.
How does the dog monitor changes in blood sugar level?
When some people first hear about diabetic alert dogs, they are in awe at the dogs’ ability to “smell.” Others are skeptical. Dr. Dana Hardin, of Eli Lilly and Company, is conducting research into the special scenting abilities of DADs to discover scientific evidence of the human’s volatile organic compounds that dogs smell. We have long known that dogs possess a superior olfactory system. Relying on dogs’ keen scenting capabilities, trainers have employed dogs to seek out numerous things from cached drugs and lost hikers to shed antlers and arson accelerants. Just as hunting dogs are trained to follow the scent of wild game and drug-detection dogs are trained to sniff out concealed illegal drugs, DADs are trained to smell changes in human scent when a diabetic’s blood glucose level changes.
Current research on canine olfaction reveals a complex, sophisticated method of knowing the world by smell. Dogs know us primarily by smell, using extensive nasal passages and odor-collection chambers, as well as the nasal vomeronasal organ, a special sac “covered with more receptor sites for molecules.” Dogs recognize us by our unique odors—by our sweat, perfume, and clothing. They can tell if we’ve just bathed and what food or drink we’ve recently had. And as our Wildrose storywriters reveal, DADs smell, sense, know their team members’ sugar levels.
About her DAD, Megan DeHaven states, “Juniper’s ability to alert me has given me the help that I needed to get my diabetes back into a good control. . . Because she is able to alert me so well, I have been consistently improving. With her alerts she has been able to wake me from sleep when I have been having dangerously low or high blood glucose. She has been able to make me aware when my blood glucose is beginning to become dangerous while I have been driving so I can pull over and treat the situation. . . She endures my long work hours and strange shifts, while consistently alerting for my needs. She has helped me handle the burden of managing a very complicated disease. She has saved my life.”
The discussion above comes from our forthcoming book Lifesaving Labradors: Stories from Wildrose Families with Diabetic Alert Dogs. This introductory article presents just a glimpse of diabetics’ work with DADs. Daily life with a DAD requires hard work, persistence, continual training, and patience—not only with the dog, but also with inquisitive people they meet in public places. In the book ten DAD handlers tell their stories. Plus, Rachel Thornton and others provide detailed training information for DADS.
The book is now being prepared for publication and will be released by Koehlerbooks in the winter of 2014. Ahead of its release we will give information about the book’s website and Facebook page, so that you can learn more about the people and the dogs featured in it. In addition, you can reserve a copy of the book. In the meantime, you can find more information about diabetes and DADS at the contacts listed below.
Please view the photo gallery at the bottom of this blog.
Anyone wishing to support our DAD program may make a donation to the Wildrose Diabetic Alert Dog Foundation; to make a donation online simply enter this URL in your browser: http://www.createfoundation.com/MakeADonation.aspx?id=87.
For more information:
Cathy Stewart, 662-234-5788
Rachel Thornton, 205-412-3672, firstname.lastname@example.org
Alexandra Horowitz, Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know (New York: Scribner, 2009), 73.