ADVERTISEMENT

Scent of trouble: Trained dogs aid young diabetics

  • Article by: ELIZABETH DOHMS
  • Associated Press
  • August 18, 2014 - 12:05 AM

CHIPPEWA FALLS, Wis. — Bridgette Hunter is anxious most of the time.

Her heart beats rapidly and her hands begin to shake as soon as her son, Devan Buss, starts to have a hypoglycemic episode.

During severe episodes, his eyes will glaze over and his speech will slur, or he won't be able to speak at all. That's when Hunter fumbles for his Glucagon (an emergency kit for low blood sugar), knowing full well that without it, the Type 1 diabetes he has is enough to take his life.

Hunter is hoping to rest a little easier, though, now that their family has welcomed a new addition to the family. Akio is a black lab who will be trained to care for Buss, 17, through companionship and alertness to diabetic-induced abnormalities.

"It's very overwhelming, when you love your child so much and want to have things so much easier for them, but it's never going to change," Hunter said.

Michelle Monson knows the feeling. Brendan Monson is a 14-year-old who also suffers from Type 1 diabetes. Together with Happy Tails Dog Park, the families are hosting a run/walk at the dog park Saturday to help defray the cost of training.

"Without the community support, we couldn't do this for our children," Michelle said.

Akio, a 5-month-old puppy, and Riley, who is 14 weeks old, are in the midst of training at emBARK Dog Day Care in Eau Claire. Heather Mishefske, a certified dog trainer, leads the pack in training sessions. She gleans advice from Virginia-based Type 1 diabetes sufferer Melody Butler Daniels, who trained her own alert dog.

The two families had considered purchasing already-trained puppies, but the cost hovers around $20,000 and doesn't guarantee a fit with its owners.

"There's a bond they get when you train your own," Hunter said.

Neither Brendan nor Buss were born with diabetes.

Brendan's diagnosis came when he was five years old. Tell-tale signs of type 1, including increased urination and thirst, indicated to Michelle that there was an issue.

"I had a father with Type 1," she said. "I knew (Brendan) was hypoglycemic and I could smell the ketones."

After a period of his doctor refusing to test Brendan, saying that it would be too uncomfortable for Brendan, he was diagnosed.

"I ran into a stranger at Walmart who had a service dog," she said. "I saw the dog and instantly started bawling."

The dog pawed at Michelle, getting her to sit down. The owner and Michelle then sat and talked.

"I knew that I needed to get a service dog for my son," she said.

Changes in blood sugar levels prompt chemical changes in the body. Dogs are trained to pick up on those chemical smells and can notify owners of the changes even before symptoms set in.

"The breed has something to do with it," Michelle said of choosing a service dog. "Hunting dogs have a keener nose sense and are easier to train, but it really depends on temperament."

Part of the training includes a socialization period where the dogs are exposed to public setting to learn appropriate behaviors and to familiarize the dogs with scents and smells.

People with Type 1 diabetes are dependent on insulin injections to live.

"Unless it's five grams (of carbohydrates) or less, they can eat nothing without taking insulin," Hunter said.

Although many of the symptoms are the same, Type 1 diabetes sufferers don't produce insulin, a hormone that opens up cells to receive nutrients, while Type 2 (a kind of diabetes tied to obesity) sufferers are still producing some insulin.

Nighttime isn't safe for Type 1 diabetics, either. But once the dogs are trained, they will be able to seek help if they sense a drop in blood sugar.

"With the training going so well and knowing that he's going to be able to do this, it's an added insurance policy that money can't buy," Hunter said.

For now, Hunter and Michelle remain on constant high alert.

"I fear every day that I might not have my son the next day," Michelle said.

Buss' onset was rapid, and he was diagnosed at 16. There was no indication of the disease other than sleeping more than usual and unquenchable thirst.

Within a two-month period, Buss had lost about 40 pounds. Hunter gave him a hug and could feel his spine, but it wasn't until her son told her he almost passed out when he was at the park that she rushed him to the hospital.

Hunter cried when she told Buss, who felt relief that the disease that was found wasn't cancer. The family found Akio through Patrice Anderson, co-owner of Voyaging Vet Techs and a board member of the Happy Tails Dog Park.

For many nights, Hunter slept next to her son, just to provide some comfort. Akio fulfills the role of companion now and motivates Buss to be more social.

"If it wasn't for him, I'd probably be in my room drawing or sleeping," Buss said. He is an avid fan of Japanese culture, and named his dog after a Japanese word meaning "hero."

"It fits the situation better," Buss said.

Hunter said although Type 1 diabetes is a complex, life-long and dangerous disease, more awareness is needed.

"Type 1 diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control)," she said. "(It's a) scary thought, hence my drive to raise awareness and fight to my last breath to ensure a long, healthy future for my son and other with the help of a diabetic alert dog."

So far, so good for both Brendan and Buss.

"He smiles a heck of a lot more," Hunter said. "And that's something I haven't seen in a while."

"And mom cries less," Buss added.

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by The Chippewa Herald

© 2014 Star Tribune