This article reprinted from Argus-Courier.
By Yovanna Bieberich
Sunday, May 15, 2008
We all know about the use of dogs to help the blind, but dogs that sniff out sugar level problems in diabetics was unheard of until just a few years ago.
“This fellow who worked with Guide Dogs for the Blind had a dog with him on a trip when he started to go extremely hypoglycemic,” said Meri Schumacher, a Petaluma mother of three boys with juvenile diabetes. “The dog alerted him and wouldn’t leave him alone until he got up and used his medicine. That’s when he realized that dogs somehow could detect when something was wrong in a diabetic person. He later began to train dogs to detect sugar lows using a swatch of sweat from when he was low. He would hide it and train the dogs to find it by scent and then alert him. Once the dogs get that down, it’s easy to apply it to a person.”
This canine breakthrough for diabetics is a godsend for diabetics and parents of young diabetics such as Schumacher, who is in a constant state of concern about the well-being of her sons, Jack, 10, Ben, 6, and Luke, 4.
“I applied for the Dogs4Diabetics program and quickly heard back from them since our need was great,” she said. “There’s a long waiting list for the program, but we were put to the top because we had three young children with diabetes.”
The Dogs 4 Diabetes program involves going to the non-profit organization’s Concord center once a week and one Sunday a month for at least a year to train with the dogs. During this time, the organization tries to find the right dog for the right individual. “We knew that with three kids with diabetes we would need a very special dog,” she said. “And once you get a dog, you don’t necessarily get to keep them. There’s a trail period to see how things work out. Once you graduate from the program, then the dog is officially yours.”
Just two months ago, the Schumacher family was paired up with Lawton, a yellow Labrador that Schumacher says loves his job. “He’s the perfect dog and is obsessed with food, so this is a great game for him,” said Schumacher, who rewards Lawton with treats for accurately detecting sugar level problems.
“During the first week we had him, he was 100 percent correct on all 18 alerts he gave us,” she said. “If one of their blood sugar levels go below 70, Lawton will come to me. He takes two steps back, sits down and grabs his bringsle, a black strap that hangs from his neck that he puts in his mouth. That’s his signal that something is wrong and that I should go and check them.”
Schumacher said that Lawton can also sense when the sugar levels are about to change. “He’ll alert me when one of their levels is 200, but then I’ll check 10 minutes later and it will have dropped to 100. It’s absolutely amazing.”
Lawton’s accuracy and ability to detect when blood sugar levels may drop means that Schumacher is better able to help keep their diabetes under control.
“Some people don’t understand how different Type 1 juvenile diabetes is from Type 2 diabetes in adults. Type 1 is an autoimmune disease where the body attacks the pancreas. Eating the right foods and exercise won’t make it better. It won’t get better until there’s a cure, so in the meantime they have to have insulin every time they eat. They’re all on insulin pumps. Low blood sugar will cause them to pass out, go into a coma or have seizures. It means a trip to the emergency room. High blood sugar levels will cause them discomfort, vision problems and a variety of future health problems. So controlling this involves keeping their sugar levels within a tight range because too high and too low are both bad.”
With three young boys to monitor, Lawton has been a life-saver for the Schumacher family. “He’s a super hero,” said Schumacher. “He’s the greatest thing. He even wakes me up at night when the kids levels are low. I used to not be able to sleep at night because I was so worried about them. Now I can go to sleep and Lawton will come lick my face to wake me up if something changes. He really is our miracle.”
With thousands of people on the waiting list, Schumacher said the organization is always in need of volunteers and foster families for the dogs. “They can’t grow fast enough,” she said. “I can’t say enough how this dog has become our lifesaver. I’m speechless. He’s my best friend.”
To learn more about the Dogs4Diabetics program, to volunteer or donate, visit www.dogs4diabetics.com.