Trust the Dog
This month we travel to a farm in the heart of Virginia for a look at how a non-profit organization trains Labrador retrievers to alert when a diabetic person’s blood sugar is abnormally high or low. It’s a fascinating process that involves a lot of work, an earned dose of trust and a little bit of mystery - a combination that is working for a Hopkinton family that got one of the dogs for their son last summer.
Like many boys Matt Tokarski had always wanted a dog.
Last summer, Matt, his twin brother Gavin and two sisters got their wish - when a 4-month-old purebred golden lab named Pilot became the newest member of the family.
But Pilot is not just a pet - he arrived with a job and a mission. Matt, who just turned 10, has been living with diabetes the past four years. And Pilot is trained to detect when Matt’s blood sugar is abnormally high - or low - both potentially life-threatening situations.
Kate: ``I don’t sleep. I him every night at midnight and 3 a.m. at minimum.’’
Matt’s mom Kate has learned what every parent of a diabetic child already knows: it is 24/7 and you have to become part pharmacist, mathematician, doctor and nurse. Every single carbohydrate Matt eats is accounted for and calculated. And before he went on an insulin pump three years ago there were 6-12 shots every day in addition to the numerous blood sugar.
Kate: ``Diabetes, unfortunately it takes over the entire house. It’s a beast, it just constantly….everything is about diabetes.’’
Two years ago Kate read about alert dogs that could literally sniff out trouble with diabetics. She was skeptical, until she went to visit a family that had one of the dogs.
Kate: ``I was at their house, child was at school a mile away and the dog alerted. And the mom called the nurse and the nurse said let me go check him. And he was in range. And the mom said to me watch this. I guarantee before you leave the nurse is going to call me he’s low and sure enough 20 minutes later nurse called and said he’s low.’’
Hummel: ``How is that possible?’’
Kate: ``I know, and that was it for me. I’m in. I’m totally in.’’
That launched their quest to get a diabetic alert dog for Matt.
Hummel: ``Pilot, and hundreds of dogs like him, were trained here on a farm in the heart of Virginia. So we came here to find out, how they do it.’’
Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers is located on 250 acres in Culpeper, an hour and a half south of Washington, DC. The three dozen dogs currently being trained will eventually be placed in homes around the world.
Dan: ``You either let diabetes take control of your life or you take control of it and I chose the latter.’’
Dan Warren was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes 10 years ago - at the age of 29. He began training service dogs on his sprawling farm in 2009.
Dan: ``Canines for detection work have 220 million olfactory glands. Humans have 5 million olfactory glands.’’
He says the alert dog is one tool to help manage what is an invisible disease.
Dan: ``We were the first organization that ever did scientific research, we partnered with UVa right down the road in Charlottesville, did a case study research that showed the proficiency rates of our dogs to be 93 percent accurate.’’
Hummel: ``What have you found about accuracy?’’
Kate says there have been many times when Pilot has alerted, Matt’s blood sugar has been fine, but within 15 or 20 minutes it either spikes or tanks. The signal - Pilot paws whoever he can find.
Hummel: ``Is it kind of frightening that the dog may be smarter than you are?’’
Kate: ``Yes, I mean I just said this morning, my new mantra is `Trust The Dog.’”
Dan: ``They’re sensing from the core of the body: breath, saliva, heart, lung field, circulatory system, in essence the blood stream. So it is all of a process of training the dog to zone in on that chemical imbalance, alert to the individual or third party within that home that an impending blood sugar, high or low is about to occur.’’
And while the dogs go through months of obedience training on the farm - Warren’s operation differs from others because its waits to train for high and low blood sugar until the dog is placed in a specific home.
Dan: ``Instead of handing over a dog and saying - here Jim, see you later, come to us for a three-day crash course or a one-week crash course, we firmly believe in that education portion is what’s going to be the success of the individual that is receiving our dogs.’’
The training period last two years and will entail eight visits to the Tokarski’s home in Hopkinton by one of the Warren trainers. Erin Coulter brought Pilot last summer.
Kate: ``And when the trainer left here on her fourth day she said to me, ``He’s trained, now we just have to train you.’ And she was right. It’s a ton of work, it’s constant training, but the trainer comes and stays for four days initially, kind of give us the tool kit that we needed to continue his training.’’
Dan: ``The time, the commitment, the dedication, the responsibilities and the undertaking that this is. This is hard work, and it takes two parties, the organization and the recipient.’’
Kate: ``Initially when they got here it’s a general alert, it’s a paw for a blood sugar that’s out of range. And then we pick our range by positive reinforcement. So we wanted our range to be 80-180. So if Pilot alerts and he’s 81, we don’t reward him. If he alerts and he’s 79 we give him treats. So over time he learns, well I’m not going to bother, I know this number, so I’m not going to bother alerting because I won’t get a treat.’’
Kate’s husband Steve, also an early skeptic, became a convert shortly after Pilot arrived.
Steve: ``Whether he’s five feet away from him or down the street, around the corner, to me it’s amazing that he has that sense and he can warn us.’’
Cheri Campbell is the head trainer at the farm. For years she worked with narcotics dogs for the Virginia Department of Corrections before coming to work for Warren four years ago.
Cheri: ``We temperament test every single dog of every single litter and that’s how we decide who would be good for what. And once we choose the dog then we go through the families. The families send us in a - basically a bio - of their lifestyle, what they do on a day-to-day basis. What a typical day in their family looks like. Then we look at the dogs and look at the families and match them up.’’
Hummel: ``Can you tell when you look at some dogs, like `wow’ this dog’s got it?”
Cheri: ``Oh absolutely.’’
Hummel: ``And maybe this dog doesn’t.’’
Cheri: ``Absolutely you can.’’
While Kate is doing the lion’s share of the training, Matt is heavily involved as well. He takes Pilot out when he needs to go and was the only one to feed him when he first arrived last summer. The game plan is to have Pilot go to school with Matt when the dog is fully trained.
Pilot knows now to get Matt’s glucose meter when he detects a high or low blood sugar and bring it to Matt or Kate. The dog also sleeps with Matt and will alert when there’s a problem by shaking the gate set up at the bedroom door.
Matt: ``He gets up and paws, we have a gate in our room so he can paw it and it makes a lot of noise, so our mom and dad can come check.’’
And Pilot goes everywhere with the family. Last week, Matt, Gavin and two buddies went to Wachusett Mountain for a day of snowboarding. While the boys were free to hit all of the slopes, Kate and Pilot were nearby, just in case.
At one point Matt’s insulin pump failed and Kate had to spring into action as his blood sugar skyrocketed. Throughout the day Pilot checked in with Matt and would alert accordingly.
All of this comes with a price. While Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers is a non -profit organization, it charges $25,000 to help cover its costs, which average more than $40,000 per dog. Including everything from site visits over the two-year training period to hotels and airfare for the trainers.
A lab’s average lifespan is 10-14 years, the working life as an alert dog 10-11 years. Warren provides a lifetime healthcare warranty for are any major medical issues.
Families have three years to raise the money and Kate said it was not as daunting a task as it first appeared.
Kate: ``I could not believe the community and how they rallied around Matt. It was completely overwhelming. We raised $25,000 in five months.’’
Hummel: ``It’s done?’’
Kate: ``It’s done. We were done in June.’’
Kate says it’s given the family something that has been elusive since Matt was first diagnosed.
Kate: ``Just having that independence that every 10-year-old boy should have. Going to a sleepover, going to his friend’s house, going to the karate Martin Luther King Day camp, he can’t go there without me. Those are the things we want for him. There’s a freedom you wish for your children that’s gone on that moment where they tell you. For Matt, I think, it’s just knowing that somebody has his back - and it’s not me constantly saying check your blood sugar. ‘cause that gets old, even for a 9-year-old. I just checked, why do I have to check again? But when I can say, `Oh Pilot’s alerting we have to check!’ Somehow it’s different, it’s not….’’
Hummel: ``…Blame it on the dog.’’
Kate: ``….mom harassing me to check my blood sugar - it’s Pilot and he’s cool so, I’ll check.
Hummel: ``And Matt’s come to know that Pilot’s pretty dead on too, right?’’
Kate: ``Yes. Yeah. It’s not a cure, it’s not an answer to every problem that he has, diabetes is still very difficult, but it was another tool in our tool kit to help him live a successful life.’’
In Hopkinton, Jim Hummel for The Rhode Island Spotlight.