As Susan, a nearly one-year-old goldendoodle, quietly lounged at her feet, Shelby Daniel talked about how the diabetic alert dog will allow her some of the freedom that every 16 year old longs for and most enjoy.
âDuring the night, my sugar gets extremely low,â Shelby said as she tucked her long blond hair behind her ear. âSo sheâll be able to detect them and wake me up before I have seizures.â
Sheâs had about six seizures brought on by low blood sugar since she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes about four years ago. The last one was when the family was vacationing about a year ago.
âIf they go unnoticed, she will die,â said her mother, Stephanie Daniel.
Shelby is what is called a brittle diabetic, said her mother. Because she is active – Shelby plays softball, lacrosse, swims and runs cross country and track – and a growing teen, her blood sugar is not stable, Stephanie Daniel said. Despite wearing an insulin pump, her blood sugar rises and drops very quickly, and Shelby doesnât always feel the changes until it is too late, she said.
Stephanie Daniel said she was afraid to let her daughter sleep alone. She would stay in the bedroom with Shelby and check her blood sugar through the night.
âShe was sleeping in the same room as me until Sunday night,â her mother said. âItâs easy to say, âOh, my gosh,â she slept with her 16 year old.â But Iâd get up probably between three and five times a night to check her blood sugar.â
Sunday is when Susan, who was trained to smell Shelbyâs rising or dropping blood sugar levels, arrived at the family’s home in Temple in Haralson County, and Stephanie was able to get her first full nightâs sleep in years.
Thatâs what Gwen Green, a friend of the family, had hoped for when she first told the Daniels about diabetic alert dogs.
Green had heard about the dogs from a friend of a friend of her daughter. One of her daughterâs friends was in a class at the University of West Georgia with another student who brought her diabetic alert dog to class with her.
âI donât even know her name,â Green said, but she wanted to know more.
Green asked her daughterâs friend to ask her classmate about the dog for her.
âShe said it was life changing for her,â Green said.
That was enough for Green to broach the subject with Stephanie Daniel and then work out a plan to raise the $15,000 to purchase a trained dog.
She created a Facebook campaign in late August called 4Paws4Shelby. Within two weeks, the page had raised more than $5,600 towards the goal, enough to put Shelby on a waiting list for a diabetic alert dog. By mid-December, donors from all over the area, including people who don’t even know Shelby or the Daniels, had contributed the rest. So, in January, Shelby was able to choose her dog.
Training a service dog is not a fast process. Susan was delivered about six months after her training began, but Linda Werlein, the national director for Service Dog Association and owner of Von Asgard K-9 Center in Florida, said it can take a year or longer to train a dog depending on the dog and the type of training.
Werleinâs company has been providing obedience training since 1979 along with police, military and show dog training. Von Asgard started training dogs for returning military personnel who were disabled in 2001, she said.
Service dogs can be trained for a number of purposes such as retrieving things for an owner who canât pick things up or reacting to noises including alerting a deaf owner that the phone is ringing. Dogs can provide stability for a person with balance and mobility issues to help them walk or get up from a chair. Some can also detect blood sugar levels, blood pressure changes and oncoming epileptic seizures and be trained to alert their owner. The particular skills the dogs are being taught and their aptitude can determine how long the training takes, Werlein said.
âThe trainers have to work with the specific needs of the owner,â she said.
After Shelby chose her from the Diabetic Alert Dogs of America, Susan was trained specifically for Shelbyâs needs.
âWe sent in spit samples based on her blood sugar and thatâs how they train her,â Stephanie said.
The samples included spit at different blood sugar levels so that the dog could smell the differences, she said.
Shelby also wanted a dog that would run with her, so that was part of Susan’s training. The trainers knew she also would be going to practices and games, so they made sure not to give Susan balls to play with, so the dog wouldnât be tempted to run out on the field to get the balls.
Susan can smell Shelby from up to 45 feet away, and if she notices that her blood sugars are off, Susan will get up and alert Shelby by pawing at her and refusing to obey commands until Shelby checks her blood sugar. Sheâs alerted Shelby and other family members and friends with diabetes several times and Stephanie said, âSheâs always been right.â
Shelby will be bringing Susan with her to classes at Bremen High School when school starts. Werlein said service dogs are granted entrance to most places by the American Disability Act. That is not the case for therapy dogs, those trained to visit hospitals or nursing homes to help other people, and emotional support dogs, those that arenât really trained to do a specific task for the owner but, through their presence, help the owner overcome anxiety or some other emotional issue.
But although service dogs are granted that access, Werlein said that the act does not create standards or criteria for service dogs or require certification. The Service Dog Association and some other associations have created their own standards and will certify dogs as service dogs, she said. Even though the certification is not demanded by the government, it can be helpful for the owner to know what they are getting.
Bremen City Schools Superintendent David Hicks said as far as he knows, Susan will be the first service dog that the school system has ever had. The school system is working to accommodate her including finding a place for the dog to relieve itself during the day.
Heâs already met the dog, and was impressed by how calm she was, Hicks said.
âIâm kind of surprised we havenât had one before,â he said of service dogs. âIt seems to be more commonplace now.â