Sharyn French quietly urges her Black Labrador, Milo, as she lies sideways on the floor of a conference room.
Seven-year-old Milo is unaware that this is not a true emergency, but rather a demonstration of his ability as a Diabetic Alert Dog. With increasingly distressed whimpering, Milo runs to me, nudges and then runs back to Sharyn. If needed, he is also trained to open a handicap access door or one with
a tug strap.
In other words, Milo is more than just Sharyn’s constant companion and yoga partner; he is also her potential lifesaver.
Sharyn, a clinical research assistant at Mayo Clinic, was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes when she was 5 years old and now marvels at the way technology has changed the way she manages her health.
“When I was first diagnosed, I had to pee in a cup and there was no way to test my blood sugar regularly, which really only showed levels from 2 to 3 hours earlier,” says Sharyn. “It’s so wonderful to have all of these tools now. I have a sensor, but Milo is actually 20 minutes ahead of the sensor when my blood sugar is falling fast.”
Diabetic Alert Dogs
Diabetic Alert Dogs are trained to alert their diabetic owners in advance of low or high blood sugar events before they become dangerous. This allows their owners to take action to return their blood sugar to normal by taking glucose sweets or insulin.
Hyperglycemia and hypoglycemia release chemicals in the body that have a distinct odor undetectable by humans. Diabetic Alert Dogs react to this scent produced by blood fluctuations. They help their owners experience more confident, independent lives, as well as significant emotional security.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) recognizes Diabetic Alert Dogs as service dogs, and federal law permits them to accompany owners to school, work, restaurants, stores and other public places where pets are not typically allowed.
Living with Diabetes
Growing up with diabetes was challenging for Sharyn, but she says it was likely much harder on her mother, who gave Sharyn glucagon shots to raise her blood sugar and also measured all of Sharyn’s food.
“I remember the first improvement in technology I really enjoyed was disposable needles,” Sharyn recalls with a laugh. “The old stainless steel needles got dull very fast. Needles today are so much more comfortable because they are smaller and sharper.”
When Sharyn received her sensor and pump 20 years ago, she found it to be helpful, but not a perfect system.
“It feels like you’re always on a tightrope; it’s hard to keep the levels just right.”
Sharyn was 60 years old and living alone when she decided to get a service dog. Some organizations donate Diabetic Alert Dogs, but Sharyn found that the best match for her was paying for a trained dog through an organization called PawPADs (Pawsitive Perspectives Assistant Dogs) in Lakeville, Minn.
“It’s an investment,” says Sharyn. “There are two weeks of training (Partner Training Camp) and also a home interview to make sure your house is suitable. I had a bunny at the time, so one of the volunteers brought in a rabbit to test with Milo and other dogs. Milo was the only one who touched noses with the rabbit. Later at home, he brought a ball dropped it in front of my bunny and when the bunny didn’t play, he has ignored her ever since. She does like to try and bug him, though.”
The Making of a D.A.D. in Prison
PawPADs begins basic training, using only positive reinforcement, with very young puppies. They must meet high standards in the areas of behavior, health, obedience and skills training. The puppies are exposed to a wide range of people, animals and circumstances to assure that they will perform well even among distractions.
Milo, along with other service dogs, was trained for two years at Sandstone Federal Prison in northern Minnesota. This partnership between PawPADS and correctional facilities is highly successful because inmates have the opportunity to give something back to society. Service dogs live with the inmates 24/7 during the process, and it can be very therapeutic.
“There’s a no-touch rule in prison and they miss that. These dogs are helpful for them, too.” says Sharyn. “They learn parenting skills, behavior management … Milo’s trainer said that he was no challenge.”
Milo graduated from his training knowing 200–300 commands, plus other fun tricks. One necessary skill is the ability to detect low blood sugar. Milo was trained with a hidden cotton swab that contained Sharyn’s saliva (at a time when her blood sugar was low) in a pocket. He learned to alert upon detection of the scent.
Milo has the ability to wake up and alert even when both he and Sharyn are sleeping. The training involved waving the swab slowly in front of Milo’s nose while he slept. When he woke up and alerted her by nudging with his nose, he received a treat.
Having a Diabetic Alert Dog does not mean that a diabetic person can stop monitoring their blood glucose levels. A dog can provide an added layer of protection but is unable to deliver insulin or count carbohydrates. Individuals must continue careful monitoring in case the dog misses a sign.
“It depends on the day how often Milo alerts me, if I’m in a different location that normal, and also if I ignore him the first time. It’s generally two or three times a day. He nudges me with his nose and his nudges get progressively harder.”
Day to Day
Sharyn and Milo enjoy walking in the woods near their Mantorville home and going to yoga classes at the Dan Abraham Healthy Living Center.
“I let Milo go at the door at yoga. He picks a spot in the sun and lies down on his own mat. I have to put my mat there, too. If someone else is in the spot he wants, they move for him. Because, he’s a princess,” Sharyn says with a smile.
Milo offers genuine peace of mind and companionship for Sharyn, but she is quick to caution that a service dog is a big commitment.
“It’s 24/7 and you have to accept that. And you only have one hand to do things most of the time. Buffet lines are hard,” Sharyn laughs. “But Milo brings a lot more joys than challenges. A lot more smiles.”
Amy Brase is a local writer who is captivated by the incredible role of service dogs. She and her husband have three children and a Goldendoodle who strives to spread joy to everyone he meets.