For the last 15 years, Courtney Sussman has structured her life around monitoring Type 1 diabetes.
The 22-year-old Clarks Summit resident watches her carbohydrate intake, regularly checks her blood sugar levels and wears a permanent insulin pump on her body. The struggles and complications of diabetes have always been there.
What‚Äôs new is Finn.
The 21-month-old chocolate Labrador retriever arrived in late July from Arizona with Josh Peeples of Diabetic Alert Dogs of America, who trained the 60-pound pup for eight months to become Sussman‚Äôs service animal.
Before Peeples and Finn trekked more than 2,350 miles from Phoenix, they worked from saliva samples Sussman sent in mason jars that contained a wide range of sugar levels. Finn learned to recognize her specific markers so he would know when to alert ‚ÄĒ by pawing at her ‚ÄĒ when she dipped too low or spiked too high.
Just before Finn arrived at the home Sussman shares with her boyfriend, Danny, and their roommate, Tim, his new handler nervously waited to meet him. She tossed and turned and couldn‚Äôt sleep until 3 a.m. the night before, she said.
Though she specifically picked him 10 months prior from available dogs who met the baseline cognitive requirements to become diabetic service trainees, Sussman felt unprepared for how to receive her new protector.
‚ÄúI fell in love with his green eyes. He looks like a good boy,‚ÄĚ she said. ‚ÄúI don‚Äôt know what to expect, if I can run up and hug him or not. But I‚Äôm really excited to have a lifelong friend who is always there for me.‚ÄĚ
A nonprofit begins
Sussman wasn‚Äôt the only one anxious to greet Finn. Her mother, Jamie, was the one who originally suggested she needed an alert dog who could monitor her throughout the day and, most importantly, while she sleeps.
‚ÄúAs she‚Äôs gotten older, she‚Äôs not feeling the highs and lows as much. When she was younger, they‚Äôd wake her,‚ÄĚ Jamie Sussman said. ‚ÄúI‚Äôve known several people in my life who died (from diabetes). They went to sleep and just never woke up.‚ÄĚ
To get Finn to NEPA, Jamie Sussman founded the nonprofit Sprint for Service Dogs last year, and she has held a quartet of fundraisers to offset the cost of Finn‚Äôs training ‚ÄĒ which carries a $15,000 price tag. He‚Äôs about half paid off, the family noted, and they have until October to come up with the rest of the money through benefit events before they have to make monthly payments out of pocket, which would amount to about $400.
‚ÄúI‚Äôm very, very grateful for everyone‚Äôs help, and proud of my mom,‚ÄĚ Courtney Sussman said. ‚ÄúThere‚Äôs a lot of people who look forward to and follow my story. I didn‚Äôt think it would blow up like it did.‚ÄĚ
The day Finn arrived started average enough for her. She tested her blood sugar around 8 a.m. when she woke up, the result being a perfect 115 mg/dL (the ideal range for her body is between 80 and 120).
At 10:50, Peeples and Finn pulled up to the house. Everyone inside scrambled onto the front lawn, and Courtney Sussman carefully approached the waiting dog. The people around began snapping photos on cell phones, and a chorus of ‚Äúawws‚ÄĚ rang out as Finn cordially licked her face.
In the happy excitement surrounding this long-awaited meeting, it almost escaped everyone‚Äôs notice when he raised a paw to Peeples.
‚ÄúCourtney, can we go inside and check your sugar?‚ÄĚ the trainer asked.
Within two minutes, it became clear that Finn was well worth both the money and the countless hours of training. Courtney Sussman‚Äôs meter returned a reading of 304, a dangerously high spike she hadn‚Äôt even felt. But after only a moment on the job, Finn knew.
‚ÄúThis guy is a special guy. He has a natural ability,‚ÄĚ Peeples said. ‚ÄúThere‚Äôs happiness, because this is what we‚Äôve been working for, but it‚Äôs hard to be cut out (of his life now).‚ÄĚ
A short time later, the entire entourage made its way to a pet store so Peeples could direct the Sussmans in buying Finn low-calorie treats (rewards for alerting that won‚Äôt make him obese), high-quality dog food and specific toys he‚Äôs been taught to enjoy while ignoring others (such as common balls) so he stays focused on his work.
Before he returned to Arizona, Peeples helped Finn‚Äôs new family learn his commands, and by the end of the first day, Finn alerted Courtney Sussman several more times when her blood sugar moved out of its safe range.
‚ÄúIf I don‚Äôt keep up with his training, he turns into a regular dog and will just be a really expensive pet,‚ÄĚ Courtney Sussman said. ‚ÄúI want to make sure I know everything to do.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄėA lot more secure‚Äô
A few weeks into their new life together, Finn has become a staple at Scranton Dodge Chrysler Jeep Ram, where Courtney Sussman works as a receptionist. He has accompanied her on errands like grocery shopping, trips to restaurants and even the gym where she does CrossFit. His new handler has gotten over her initial guilt of feeling like she ‚Äúripped him from his family‚ÄĚ and has stepped up to become the alpha behind whom he falls in line.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs surreal. It‚Äôs like he was a fantasy before,‚ÄĚ Courtney Sussman said. ‚ÄúIt amazes me how you can train a dog to literally save a person‚Äôs life. Dogs are so smart. He can save me. He can save my life. It makes me feel a lot more secure.‚ÄĚ
In the months and even years to come, she plans to share her story and become more involved with Sprint for Service Dogs as it turns to helping others in need of highly trained animals.
‚ÄúMy mom literally built (Sprint for Service Dogs) from the bottom up, and I want to help with that,‚ÄĚ Courtney Sussman said. ‚ÄúI want it to last and help other people, and be able to use me and Finn to help advocate how much a diabetic service dog can mean to someone.‚ÄĚ
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‚ÄĘ You should never approach, talk to or touch a service dog without first asking the handler for permission. Do not take offense if the handler says no. The service dog is working, and the handler‚Äôs life could depend on the animal staying focused on its job.
‚ÄĘ Do not offer food to a service dog. Food is a huge distraction for service dogs, and most service dogs are on a specific diet and feeding schedule.
‚ÄĘ Respect the handler‚Äôs privacy and do not ask about his or her disability.
‚ÄĒ JOSH PEEPLES, DIABETIC ALERT DOGS OF AMERICA