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December 6, 2013

Mo. diabetic alert dog changes owner's life

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

FLORISSANT, Mo. — Florissant resident Terri Burke was nervous before meeting her puppy for the first time. She had waited seven months for this moment, and it would change her life.

Murphy, a 4-month-old yellow Labrador retriever, stepped into Burke’s home Oct. 30, and Burke burst into tears. She let the puppy lick her face while she rubbed his ears.

Murphy is not a pet. For Burke, the Diabetic Alert Dog may be a life-saver.

Burke, now 40, has battled Type 1 diabetes for 30 years. In the past 10, her body has stopped showing the symptoms of low blood sugar, such as sweating, intense hunger and shakiness. Her blood sugar plummets frequently, sometimes right after dinner, and she becomes unconscious with no warning.

Twice, Burke has awakened in the back of an ambulance because she passed out while driving her car and had minor accidents.

“I’m afraid to be by myself,” she said.

Now she doesn’t have to be.

Murphy will stay by Burke’s side at all times and can tell from his sense of smell when her blood sugar goes out of range up to 45 minutes before it happens. He alerts her by pawing her and will be trained to bring her juice or a glucose meter.

Eventually, Murphy will be able to press a button that dials 911 if she’s unresponsive and no one else is available.

Service dogs

In March, Burke discovered the Virginia nonprofit organization Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers and applied for the program. For training and delivery, each dog costs $25,000, and all of that money is supposed to be raised by recipients.

She had raised about $2,000 when she was notified in August that a dog was matched to her and would be delivered at the end of October. Burke has now raised more than $10,000.

Erin Gray, the service dog trainer who delivered Murphy, said participants often pay off the services in about three years, but sometimes it takes longer.

She said dogs have been trained to smell low blood sugar and other abnormalities in humans for more than 10 years, but their services spiked in popularity during the last few. Warren Retrievers now has a nine- to 12-month waiting list for dogs.

The number of service dogs in the United States is unknown, because numerous organizations register them, and the Americans with Disabilities Act does not require service dogs to be certified.

Grace Keagen, director of advocacy at U.S. Service Dog Registry, said Seeing Eye dogs became popular in the United States after World War I, when veterans returned home with vision impairments. In the 1970s, dogs began being trained for other roles, especially breeds that have a high capacity to learn, build bonds and have good temperament.

Retrievers, for example, have a fitting name because their instinct is to retrieve, and they can be trained to bring medical supplies and emergency contact lists to their owners.

Keagan said diabetic alert dogs have been used since the 1980s for tasks such as retrieving insulin, but it wasn’t until around 2000 that dogs were more commonly trusted to smell changes in blood sugar.

Several organizations nationwide also provide dogs to help with conditions such as seizures, autism and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Warren Retrievers also trains dogs to help people with seizures and autism. Its diabetic alert dogs are selected at 7 weeks old after scent and temperament tests. They are trained with other puppies in their litter and are generally delivered to their homes at 4 months of age. Up until Murphy is 2, he and Burke will be visited by a trainer every few months for four days of expanded training.

New tricks

During his first four days at the new home, Gray accompanied Burke and Murphy to places she normally visits, such as the grocery, restaurants and her work.

At the mall on their first day, Murphy started to whine. Burke checked her blood sugar and it was at 135. Out of range would be below 70 or above 140, so she set an alarm to check it again in 20 minutes. Burke said Murphy whined for the entire duration. She checked again and her blood sugar was at 130, so she set another alarm. For the next 10 minutes, she said, Murphy acted out. He would sit down and force them to stop walking, and he rolled around on his back.

Burke checked her blood sugar again. It was 70.

“He knew something was wrong before I knew something was wrong,” she said. “That was the first thing for me that really made it sink into my head that this was real, and this is going to work.”

After Burke had a snack, she said, Murphy still wouldn’t relax. Gray kept telling him to lie down, but he sat up, staring at Burke. The trainer told her that Murphy would calm down as soon as her sugar was back up. Finally, Murphy lay down and Burke checked. She was at 125.

She said since then she has noticed that at home or work, Murphy will generally alert her not only with his paw, but by rolling on his back. When they’re in public, he whines.

And as their bond grows, Murphy is able to smell her levels from farther away.

Burke, a nurse, sometimes has to leave the dog in her office when she sees patients. Once, in late November, she visited a patient on a separate floor from Murphy. A few hours later, he started whining. Burke’s manager heard the dog and notified her. Almost 30 minutes later, her blood sugar was low.

At home, Murphy acclimated to his environment and became fast friends with the other pets — Casey, a 3-year-old Labrador mix, and Squeaky Dog, an 18-year-old Dachshund.

Burke’s husband, John, 40, is a fan. He said he constantly worries about his wife.

“I have come home from work and found her with extremely low blood sugars to where she was not really responsive,” he said. “It’s just in the back of my mind; now I don’t have to worry about that as much.”

Terri Burke and Murphy spent their first day home alone with the other dogs Nov. 6. She said Murphy nudged her awake from a nap and her blood sugar was at 56, very low. If Murphy had not been there to alert her, she said, the situation could have been dangerous.

When a trainer visits the family in January, Murphy will learn to give Burke separate signals depending on whether her blood sugar is too high or too low.

He’s also slowly beginning to alert her in his sleep. Burke can recognize that her levels are out of range if Murphy starts to kick his front and back legs while sleeping. The weekend after Thanksgiving, she said, Murphy actually sat up in his sleep and started growling. She checked, and her blood sugar was low.

Eventually the goal is for Murphy to wake up every time Burke is out of range and rouse her from her sleep.

“Just to know that things will only get better from here is very promising,” she said. “And such a good thing for me.”

Copyright 2013 St. Louis Post-Dispatch

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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