We're always happy to hear stories about diabetes alert dogs helping families, along with the growing body of research being built up behind these anecdotal tales of doggy awesomeness.
Well try this one on for size: a newly adopted D-Alert Dog in Indiana, who not only has an awesome story but has her own book, Facebook page and even business cards! Yup, this family's dog is not only helping alert a pair of type 1s in the same household to glucose highs and lows, but is also "out" in the Diabetes Online Community (DOC) raising awareness -- how cool is that?!
Can we get a Woof, Woof here?
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We've talked to the researchers and adults with D-Alert Dogs before about these service dogs, but today we're excited to share the story of the Indiana-based Lally Family and their very special Super Dog, Fielder!
The Lally Family's Story
Dogs aside, the Lally family consists of Mom Lisa, Dad Pat, 10-year-old Sean, and his 7-year-old sister Samie. Their D-Alert Dog story began about a year ago, in July 2013, and was five months in the making. Eventually they were able to bring home the sister of the dog they'd first had their eyes on, this one named Fielder. Her main mission: to protect young Sean, who was diagnosed during a family vacation to DisneyWorld in Florida almost four years ago. But Fielder also alerts for the father of the household, Pat, who's been living with type 1 since he was 4 years old in 1977.
So, this dual-diabetic household is double-duty for this particular blood sugar-sensing canine.
The family started looking at D-Alert Dogs a couple years after Sean's diagnosis in November 2010, specifically because of the boy's hypoglycemia unawareness causing his inability to recognize some of his low blood sugars. After hearing about D-Alert dogs online and on TV, Lisa says they started researching the canines but didn't make a final decision until February 2013.
"We started talking about it one day after Sean had a blood sugar reading on the meter of LOW, no number -- which meant below 20," Lisa Lally says. "Then one day a couple months later, I went out grocery shopping for 45 minutes and came home to find my husband passed out, having a low blood sugar seizure. The glucagon didn't work and he spent three days in the hospital. That totally freaked me out and I couldn't sleep... that made the decision for us."
The family considered a continuous glucose monitor (CGM), but decided against it because Sean didn't want to hook himself up to another device in addition to the insulin pump he already wears. After choosing to go with an alert dog from Drey's Alert Dogs in Texas, the Lallys started the fundraising process to cover the $9,000 pricetag -- and were successful enough to be able to bring Fielder home last summer.
Originally, they were supposed to get a black lab named Prince, but the company determined he wasn't best suited for diabetes alerting and instead offered one of Prince's sister pups, Fielder.
The family is originally from Kalamazoo, Michigan, and are big fans of Detroit Tigers baseball (just like me!), and one of Sean's favorite players at the time was Prince Fielder -- thus the dogs' names, reflecting their fan-love even though they've now moved to Bloomington, Indiana. Ironically, Prince Fielder was traded last year to the Texas Rangers, and is now not far from where both D-Alert Dogs Prince and Fielder hail from!
Of course, just like any diabetes tool, the dogs aren't 100% accurate all the time. But Lisa says Fielder's pretty spot on most of the time in alerting both Sean and Pat when their sugars are below 80 or above 180. Between the father-son pair, Fielder alerts about 10-15 times a day. Her signature alert style is to paw at their legs, but Lisa says it does depend on the severity of the low, and sometimes Fielder jumps up and down at them or pokes with her nose.
"Fielder's amazing," Lisa says. "There have been many times where she alerts and their blood sugars are fine, so at first we just thought she was wrong. Then 10-15 minutes later when she alerts again, we find out they have dropped significantly and are now low. Her nose is ahead of the meters!"
Needless to say, Fielder's been a huge benefit for the family when it comes to living with diabetes.
A D-Dog Tale
To help raise money for Fielder, Sean actually wrote and illustrated a 24-page book called Fielder The Super Dog about how excited he was to get an alert dog. Lisa helped, she points out, but it's mainly the work of her then 9-year-old, which she hopes can help raise some awareness about diabetes alert dogs in general. The book introduces Sean and how his blood sugar wings made them want an alert dog to ensure his safety, how he could watch Fielder's training in Texas via his computer, and even how Fielder alerted a 7-year-old boy to a high blood sugar that led to a type 1 diagnosis during his alert training! The book's available on Amazon in print and Kindle formats for less than $9. All proceeds from the book go to helping other kids get alert dogs, Lisa says.
On top of the self-published book, Fielder also has her own Facebook page and even has business cards -- Lisa says it's much easier to hand those cards out than to keep writing down the website for curious observers.
"When we go out, everyone asks about her and wants info," Lisa says. "Some wonder if we're training her to be a blind alert dog, or whether she's legit. Diabetes is such an invisible illness, so people sometimes think you're scamming or only training. It's just easier to have business cards."
And they're happy to help raise awareness about D-Alert Dogs, to help other families who are considering or already have these service dogs in their lives.
The Lallys haven't had any specific problems or faced any D-Alert Dog discrimination with Fielder so far, but Lisa's very aware those issues can arise and tries to prep ahead of time for any eventuality. For example, they home school both Sean and his younger sister, so at this time they don't have any school-based issues.
"We've been pretty lucky, but we're pretty sensitive about those things and tend to make sure it's OK to have Fielder with us ahead of time when we're going out, if we can," she said. "It's more of a courtesy, so it's not a surprise."
They've been together for close to a year now, andFielder and Sean are getting their first "vacation" (aka break from each other) in a couple of weeks when Sean attends a local D-Camp for the first time, at the Diabetes Youth Foundation of Indiana's Camp Until A Cure (an organization for which I happen to be a board member).
Sean says he's looking forward to it -- even if Fielder won't be there with him. Fielder did get to go to the recent Family Camp in early May and was automatically alerting many of the children with diabetes there, but Lisa says it would be too much for the summer D-camp full of diabetic kids. So Fielder will stay home and look after Pat.
Science Meets Success Stories
Even though Fielder won't be there, that doesn't mean a D-Alert dog won't be at camp raising awareness and educating about all these service dogs can do. Planning to make an appearance at the DYFI camp is Dr. Dana Hardin, a pediatric endo working for Lilly Diabetes who's one of the leading researchers on D-Alert Dogs. She'll be bringing her newest Diabetic Alert Dog, Cheyenne, that she's just started training.
Hardin brought Cheyenne home just recently after finding her at a shelter, and vetted her into the training program. She gets a new shelter dog about every three months to start training them to be an alert dog; her last one was recently placed with a military veteran who isn't diabetic, but lives with something called Dumping Syndrome, in which food dumps out of his system quickly and consequently blood sugars can drop dangerously low. That D-Alert Dog has already saved the vet's life, Hardin says. (What a great Memorial Day Week story, btw!)
We've been closely watching the latest research on these alert dogs and what Dr. Hardin's been up to for the past few years. She's been studying exactly how dogs detect hypos and even hyperglycemia. In her research presented at the 2013 ADA Scientific Sessions, Hardin showed that the dogs can actually identify the chemical compounds specific to hypoglycemia and can be trained to alert for that. Since then, she's been analyzing samples and preparing for the next round of scientific journal publication possibly by year's end. The hope: to determine patterns in how the dogs detect risk for lows, and they're looking at both type 1 and type 2 PWDs with alert dogs to gather data.
Hardin is also collaborating with many groups across the U.S. on training protocols for how the dogs should be responding and acting in public.
Creating public awareness about D-Alert Dogs is equally important, Hardin says. She does a lot of community outreach to camps and schools, and also believes it's vital for families like the Lallys to be out there talking about their experiences and showing how the canines respond -- solidifying the research findings that can be chock-full of medical lingo and not reach the masses effectively.
"There's so much community interest now, and so it's important that we have this awareness," Hardin says. "Telling those stories about the impact of these dogs on patients is what helps people to see that the science is real, and to help identify reputable trainers and organizations."
It's so great to hear these kinds of stories, bringing the science and anecdotes together.
We can't wait to see where it all goes during these upcoming Dog Days of Summer -- especially as the research becomes more concrete and possible treatments can be developed as a result of the mechanisms that let these dogs detect danger before it escalates.