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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?’’