A Type 1 Family Gets a Diabetes Alert Dog

A new memoir focuses on how a diabetes alert dog can help a family struggling with a Type 1 diabetes diagnosis. Elle & Coach: Diabetes, the Fight for My Daughter’s Life, and the Dog Who Changed Everything is authored by Stefany Shaheen, mother of four and daughter of U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.

The book begins with the surprise Type 1 diagnosis of Stefany’s daughter, Elle. For three years after the initial diagnosis, Elle suffers through blood sugar swings of severe lows and near-DKA highs and can’t get her A1C down below 9. The family feels at a loss for what to do when they witness a girl helped by a diabetes alert dog at the 2011 JDRF Congress.

Here’s an excerpt from the book about that incident:

At the closing event, Craig and I took notice of that little girl with her sweet dog, sitting in the well of the U.S. Senate committee hearing room. The children were gathered front and center, seated on the floor, while parents took a back seat in the galleries along the perimeter. That dog sat ever so patiently at the girl’s feet, even in the middle of a large crowd, surrounded by dozens of cameras while a series of JDRF representatives, including some of the kids, shared testimony with members of the Senate…I never knew a dog that could walk into a room full of people without running around and sniffing everyone or barking at something for seemingly no reason or jumping up to say hi. Not this dog.

Elle was sitting close to the girl and her dog, and I saw her look over when suddenly the dog sat straight up. He scanned the crowded room looking for the girl’s mother. When he couldn’t find her, he started circling around the child to get the mother’s attention. Soon the mother was at the daughter’s side. She whispered something to her. The girl pulled out her lancet and test kit and checked right there in the middle of the hearing room. Her dog kept pacing…I wasn’t there to discern if she was high or low, but they made their adjustments, rewarded the dog, and he lay right back down. The incident was over in a matter of seconds. They didn’t even disturb the hearing. It was stunning.*

Dogs are hunters, cognizant of a “pack” hierarchy. They are capable of distinguishing their owners and owners’ family members as members of their pack. They also can be trained to react consistently to prompts and commands. That is why some breeds are exceptional as protectors of children, as gatherers, and watch dogs.

A body of research has shown a dog’s sense of smell to be in orders of thousands more sensitive than a human’s. A dog may have more than 200 million scent receptors in its nose, compared to a human’s approximately 5 million. About an eighth of its brain is made up of a nerve bundle called the olfactory bulb, about 40 times the size and signal-transmitting capacity of a human’s olfactory bulb. This gives the dog not only greater than human capacity to detect odors, but to “factor out” masking and ambient odors. Combining this highly refined smelling ability with a dog’s instinctual drive to hunt prey for reward underpins the training process.

A hyperglycemic event causes the body to expire ketones, and the exhaust from the process can be sensed in the breath. A hypoglycemic event, on the other hand, is characterized by production of urea from metabolism of nitrogen, which the body disposes of through perspiration that carries an ammonia scent which the dog can sense. Diabetes assist dogs learn that an “alerting” behavior, such as nudging, barking, circling, or even fetching a test kit in response to a low or a high scent results in praise, a treat, or both.

There are a number of agencies offering selection and training services for diabetes service dogs, and their humans. It’s important to investigate whether the agency carries the credentials necessary to document the dog as a trained service animal, qualifying it under the “public accommodations” title of the Americans With Disabilities Act and under your state’s corresponding public health and disabilities rights laws.

Elle&Coach_BookCover_300pxThe dog at the center of this story, Coach, came from the CARES non-profit foundation of Kansas. With Coach by her side, Elle continues to grow as an athlete, budding thespian, and formidable diabetes advocate.

To read more about the family’s journey with a diabetes alert dog, you can order Elle & Coach: Diabetes, the Fight for My Daughter’s Life, and the Dog Who Changed Everything at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

*Excerpt © Stefany Shaheen. Used by permission of Hachette Book Group.

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Jim Cahill is a former staff writer for Insulin Nation and a former editor of Type 2 nation.

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