New family dog is no ordinary pooch

jmarks@lakewyliepilot.comApril 16, 2013 

  • Does it work? This month’s Diabetes Care journal includes a preliminary survey of diabetic alert dog users to examine how effective the dogs are compared to other existing monitoring methods. The admittedly small sample size – 36 users in an online survey – showed “some encouraging evidence” of the benefits of the dogs, including: 36 percent of respondents reported no instances of hypoglycemia without an alert in the past month, and 28 percent reported less than one such instance a week, compared to 36 percent reporting more than one per week. 75 percent noted an improved quality of life and ability to participate in physical activities. • 61 percent noted decreased worry about hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia. • Respondents reported significant decreases in severe and moderate cases of hypoglycemia.

— The Self family never had a dog before last week. Now they have a borderline “magic” one that parents Chris and Laura at first couldn’t believe, and still can’t quite explain.

They just know Signal could be a lifesaver for their daughter.

Signal, a black Lab born six months ago, is a service dog for Hannah Self, 10. Hannah isn’t visually or hearing impaired. She doesn’t suffer from seizures. She’s a Type 1 diabetic.

That means constant testing of her blood sugar levels can run dangerously high or low, at all hours of day and night. Signal is attuned to scents given off by changes in the blood sugar and can alert the family.

Hannah, who counted her days waiting for Signal from the family’s decision to acquire the dog last June, is more excited about where the dog can go than what she can do.

“I can bring it anywhere,” Hannah said. “They can’t say, no, you can’t bring it in here.”

Signal hadn’t been in the yard but a few minutes before Cheri Campbell, a handler with Virginia-based Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers, asked if Hannah’s blood sugar might be a bit high. A test proved it was. The family will spend the next 18 months in training with Signal to read cues as Campbell did, and to familiarize their daughter and new dog with one another.

Eventually Signal will be able to detect blood sugar spikes from several miles away. There’s even an option to install a button in the home allowing Signal to alert emergency responders. Bringing a trainer back from Virginia every 90 days and constant online contact during training won’t be simple, or inexpensive. Dogs like Signal can cost as much as a new car, but having her will, the family hopes, bring peace in knowing Hannah is as safe as possible.

“It’s very expensive, but we’re hoping it’ll be worth it,” Laura Self said.

Pat Higgins, manager of the American Diabetes Association office in Charlotte, said service dogs for diabetics are a “fairly new” trend. The first diabetic service dog finished training in 2005. Three years later, according to the association’s consumer publication, Diabetes Forecast, experts still weren’t entirely sure how the dogs were alerting patients during or even before spikes.

The association doesn’t have its own programs for service dogs, but recognizes several outside ones. Campbell’s company placed around 170 dogs with families in the past four years.

She brought Signal and another dog to the Charlotte area from Virginia, spending about a week with them and proving why her company allows most of the training to be done with patient families.

“They’ve absolutely bonded to me,” Campbell said. “Imagine two years down the road how bonded they’ll be if I’ve been the only one training them. And imagine how hard it would be to bond to a new owner then.”

Early introductions also can help the patient.

“Who’s not going to bond to a puppy?” Campbell said.

The main concern was whether the Selfs want to be a “poster family” for Hannah’s condition. They realize questions are inevitable, especially when a child with no outward signs of ailment begins taking Signal out in public.

But they haven’t shied away from conversations. The Selfs annually participate in a charitable diabetes walk at Carowinds. Their team for this month’s walk already has more than $10,000 raised.

“I want to live in a community that understands,” Laura Self said.

For many months to come, the family will have lots to learn – which foods to buy, how to recognize trained alert signals, even picking up after the dog in the yard. Just everyday adjustments to a first family dog, magical as it may be.

“I still don’t know how she does what she does,” Chris Self said.

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