Brenda (Mom), Laura, and Daisy (the furry one)
I met Brenda through my trainer, Scott Smith and she was generous enough to agree to be interviewed for the blog. Brenda’s daughter, Laura, has diabetes and they recently got a diabetic alert dog to help manage her highs and lows. Brenda’s openness and sincerity tell an inspiring tale that will be of special interest to parents considering a DAD. I’m deeply grateful for her time, candor, and friendship.
How long has Laura had diabetes and what was your experience with diabetes prior to Laura’s diagnosis?
Laura is 10 years old and was diagnosed with T1 diabetes a little over 3 years ago. We have no one else on either side of the family with T1 so the diagnosis came as quite a shock to us, as it does for many families. I am a pediatric nurse so many people thought that I would have been well prepared for dealing with her diabetes. That was not the case! Just like all things medical, my nursing career had lead me to a specialty within pediatrics and diabetes management was not it. I’ll let you in on a little secret….Before Laura’s diagnosis, her school had asked me if I would be interested in working as a school nurse and I told them no because I knew I would have to deal with kids with T1 and I didn’t feel like I had a clue as to how to care for them!
I understand you acquired Daisy through a trainer. How long has she been with you?
Daisy will have been with us for 1 year this April! It’s been a crazy 9 months so far, but, I wouldn’t trade it for anything!
Did you have any experience with dogs prior to Daisy?
My experience with dogs prior to Daisy was limited to my childhood poodle and our current family pet, Buddy, a wheaten terrier. So, I guess I knew the basics of having a dog, but certainly didn’t know a thing about having a service dog. That’s something that was hard for us, and continues to be hard, remembering that Daisy is a service dog, not a pet. We have 2 dogs living in our house and they are treated quite differently.
When did the idea of a DAD first entire your mind?
The first time I had heard about a DAD was in the hospital at the time of Laura’s diagnosis. The diabetes educator that was working with us was telling us about new research, new treatments, new management tools and said, “I’ve even heard that they can train a dog to detect blood sugar levels.” I didn’t think a thing of it at the time. I guess that little bit of information just got stored away somewhere in my brain. As time went on we quickly discovered that Laura would rarely feel any symptoms of a low blood sugar. She was only 7 at the time and the doctors told us that it might take a while before she started to recognize her symptoms. I would often receive phone calls from the school nurses, in a panic, because Laura came in for a routine blood sugar check and was found to be in the 40’s and was bouncing around the office, acting her usual self.
We worked with her at home and her counselors at diabetes camp worked with her there, to help her realize her body was sending her signals that her blood sugar was low. She would sit quietly and we would ask her, Do you feel shaky? Do you feel hungry? Do you feel tired, weak, nervous, sweaty, ANYTHING? And the answer was always, NO. After over 2 years of this, that little bit of information about DAD’s that had been tucked away in my brain started to re-surface. It was then that I started researching DAD’s on the Internet. At first, I was just casually reading about what they could do. As I learned more and as Laura continued to have lows without any symptoms, I earnestly started looking into seeing if a DAD was the right thing for us.
How does Daisy alert Laura?
Daisy alerting to a high glucose
Daisy was trained to alert by pawing when she detected either a low or high blood sugar. Shortly after we brought her home, the weather turned warmer and Laura started wearing shorts. The pawing alert quickly became a problem because Laura’s legs were getting scratched when Daisy would paw at her. I couldn’t have Laura yelling out in pain when she was supposed to be encouraging Daisy to alert! So, I decided that we needed to train her to alert another way. I had seen DAD’s alerting at the Wildrose DAD Workshop with bringsels and decided that would be the best alternative. It took a long time and a lot of patience to transition her over to using a bringsel. Here at home she will go get a bringsel and bring it to one of us. Outside of home she won’t touch the bringsel for some reason. She still does her paw alert outside of home but we have gotten her to tone it down a bit and usually she will just plop her paw down on your lap and give you “The Stare” which says you better check. I have continued to work with her so that she will offer two separate behaviors indicating either high or low blood sugar. After she alerts with either the bringsel or by paw, I ask her what the blood sugar is and she will bow if Laura is low or wave a paw if she is high. I highly value these alerts because it gives me a better idea of how to treat the situation. For instance, if Daisy bows low and Laura’s blood sugar registers 115 on the glucometer, I know Laura is dropping. For the same blood sugar, if Daisy waves high, I know she is climbing fast. Daisy still isn’t rock solid on offering these two different indicators but, we are always working on it.
Will Daisy alert someone else if Laura doesn’t respond to the alert?
Daisy has always seemed to prefer to alert to me over anyone else in the family. If I am not home, she will go to my husband or to Laura or even one of her sisters. I guess she knows I’m the one who enforces the finger stick check! Now that Laura takes Daisy to school with her and I’m not around, Daisy alerts to Laura. She did get stubborn right before the holiday break and wouldn’t alert to Laura while at school. We kept her home the last few days before the break and then over the 2 weeks Laura had off from school, we worked really hard to get her to alert to Laura. Everything’s going fine now and the two of them are back to school with Daisy alerting just perfectly. There always seems to be a challenge we are working on! And I think that’s more of a norm for DAD teams rather than the exception. I try to impress on people considering a DAD that it’s a lot of work and there will be continual, life-long training, re-training and trouble shooting. For us, it’s worth it though!
At what blood glucose level does Daisy typically alert?
Daisy usually catches Laura’s lows around 80. She is also great at alerting to a higher blood sugar that’s dropping or if Laura still has a lot of active insulin working that would drive her too low in the end. Sometimes when she alerts and Laura is say 120, I stand there and scratch my head, wondering why she alerted. Then I remember to check the pump and find that there is still enough active insulin to drive Laura into a very low number. All of Daisy’s alerts impress me but, those early alerts to an impending low take my breath away, each and every time. Highs seem to vary a little more. On average, I’d say that Daisy alerts at 200. That’s one of my next training goals, to get her to alert earlier at around 170.
How often does Daisy alert?
On a typical day Daisy probably alerts 4 to 8 times. Depends on what Laura has eaten, if she’s having huge post-meal spikes, if she’s been really active or sick. Also, Laura plays soccer so during the spring and fall, Daisy is much busier alerting to lows as Laura practices or plays in a game.
Does Daisy alert at night?
Night alerts are tricky for us. Sometimes Daisy wakes and alerts us and sometimes she doesn’t. I think that going to school all day long really tires her out and that she gets into such a deep sleep at night that she doesn’t wake. I would guess that she alerts about 40% of the time at night. And when she does alert at night, look out! She comes trotting into my room with her tail wagging so hard that she bangs into the door, the dresser and my night stand with it. She will take the bringsel off from the handle on my dresser, put her front legs up on the edge of my bed and then paw at me like she was trying to uncover hidden treasure! It certainly gets my attention!
How has Daisy impacted Laura’s diabetes management?
We have definitely noticed a huge drop in the number of hypoglycemic events Laura has since we’ve had Daisy. Probably a 75% reduction and when she does have a low, Daisy catches it much earlier than we ever would have before. Now lows are in the 60’s, at worst, compared to the 30’s and 40’s we used to experience several times per week. The best part is that even with the dramatic decrease in the number of lows Laura has now, her A1c has gone down since we got Daisy, which means that we are also catching a lot more highs than we used to.
I imagine it must be a little complicated having a non-working dog in the house along with Daisy. How do you treat him differently so that Daisy remains vigilant? Does Daisy or the other dog seem to notice that she gets special treatment?
It was extremely difficult, when we first brought Daisy home, to manage both dogs. We were advised to not let the dogs interact with one another. They could be in the same room and co-exist but were not to play, romp or otherwise engage one another. I thought I would lose my mind those first few weeks! Our other dog is a wheaten terrier and he is very much a terrier! He is energetic, curious and has a mind of his own. For the first week, both dogs were always kept on a lead; Daisy tethered to me and Buddy tethered to one of my older daughters. We slowly relaxed things and allowed Buddy free roam so long as he didn’t try to interact with Daisy. We even had Buddy “visit” Grandma’s house for a week or two when we were working hard at getting Daisy to alert here in her new home so that she wouldn’t be distracted by him. Now, 9 months later, I am happy to say that our diligence paid off. Both dogs co-exist quite well together. We do allow brief, supervised play sessions between the two of them nearly daily. But, we decide when and where they will get to interact. Most of the time, they just ignore one another. Each dog has it’s perks to being either the pet or the service dog. Buddy, our pet, gets to join us sometimes on the couch to be snuggled and pet where we don’t allow Daisy on any furniture. Buddy gets free roam of the house and can choose where he sleeps. Daisy is usually kept on place and sleeps with Laura every night. Daisy, however, gets to go almost every place that we go while Buddy has to stay home. I think there are limitations and privileges on both dogs, just different ones.
How does Laura handle the responsibility of caring for another living being? Is she able to maintain control and discipline with Daisy? How often and for how long are they “flying solo” without you there to help?
Being 10 and caring for a dog that weighs almost as much as you do, requires consistent handling techniques and costs more than your 5th grade math skills can comprehend is a huge responsibility. It was something that we had to consider carefully both when we were deciding if a DAD was right for our family as well as when we evaluated if Daisy should go to school with Laura. Laura has never been one to hide her diabetes and she has always welcomed opportunities to tell people about type 1 diabetes. When we were considering how she would feel about having a dog with her all the time and the attention it would draw to her she told us, “I always have people staring at me because they see me poke my fingers or they see my insulin pump or Dexcom. I’d much rather have them stare at me because I have a dog with me!” And she has held true to her statement. She never minds taking Daisy with us whether it is out shopping, to a movie, to church or a soccer game. On the occasion that I feel it best that we not take Daisy someplace with us, Laura usually is a little let down. But, the reunion between her and Daisy when we come back home is priceless! Lots of wiggling dog, squealing girl and wet kisses! There are times though, when Laura gets tired of Daisy and needs a break. When Laura’s blood sugars are especially out of whack and Daisy is alerting very frequently, it wears on Laura. I have to make sure I keep alert to these times and give both Laura and Daisy a break from one another. I never want to let there be tension between the two of them.
First day of school
This past Fall, Laura started taking Daisy to school with her. She is completely responsible for her from 8:30 am until 3:30 pm. She wouldn’t be able to do this if it weren’t for her school being so supportive of having Daisy in there. Laura is the only one who handles Daisy in any way at the school but her teachers have made seating accommodations so that Daisy can be on her cot right next to Laura’s desk, the nurses are willing to supervise when Laura takes Daisy outside to potty, the principal allows a crate to be kept in her office for Daisy’s daily down time during lunch and recess and the administrative assistant took on the responsibility of being responsible for Daisy if there was an evacuation of the school. They have a good routine they follow at school with lots of support, so it works. We are very fortunate both that the school is so willing to allow Daisy in school and that Laura, at age 10, is mature enough to handle her at school!
I don’t want to paint this perfect picture of child and dog happily being together every minute of every day. I wish, but, it’s not reality. Laura is still just a 10 year old little girl. She has to be reminded to feed Daisy, take her outside, walk her, brush her, practice commands with her and all the other things that go with dog ownership. On top of that we have to constantly remind Laura that Daisy’s alerts have to be given priority. When she alerts, Laura must check her blood sugar even if she’s in the middle of her best game ever of Angry Birds. It would be lying to tell you that we don’t meet resistance to this from time to time. I do try to make sure that Laura doesn’t burn out from all the attention and care she has to provide. Usually, if we go out someplace, I will handle Daisy so that Laura doesn’t have to. When Laura goes to birthday parties or to a friend’s house to play, I don’t send Daisy. And I do keep Daisy home from school on especially crazy days like holiday party days. I try really hard to strike a balance between Laura having Daisy with her as part of her diabetes management and allowing Laura to enjoy the freedom of just being a kid. It can be tricky!
As a parent of four boys I understand how complex and dynamic the parent-child relationship is. Has your relationship with Laura changed since Daisy joined the circus?
Overall, I would have to say that bringing Daisy into our family has effected our parent-child relationship in a positive way. While managing things like blood sugars, carb counting, pump settings and doctor appointments have been primarily my responsibility, caring for and using Daisy’s alerts to help manage Laura’s diabetes is something we do together. It’s a team effort. When we run up against challenges with Daisy, Laura and I have to work together to get past them. It’s not always easy and sometimes it’s not pretty, but in the end, we have had to listen to one another and work together to find a solution.
At school – note the bringsel taped to the side of Laura’s desk.
You mentioned that your school has been very supportive. I have read horror stories from some other parents in your situation where the school had to be forced to allow a service dog to accompany their child. How did you approach the school with your request? Were they immediately receptive?
I, too, have heard many stories of people having difficulty getting permission for their child to take their DAD to school. I think that many people do not fully understand that schools do not fall under the same section of the American’s with Disabilities Act as public access to places like restaurants, malls, etc. It is more difficult to get the accommodation of a service dog when you are talking about a school. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible. I had a feeling that the school supported us having Daisy come to school even before we had her. Laura’s school, another of our town’s elementary schools and the high school all did fundraisers to help us pay for Daisy. We had a huge outpouring of support from our entire community. The school board contacted us before we even left to go train with Daisy to tell us that they were having a policy meeting to draft their policy about service dogs in the schools. They had never had a request to have a service dog in any of the schools before. My husband had to attend the policy meeting on his own because it ended up being at the exact same time that Laura and I were in Virginia, training with Daisy. I prepped him, coached him and sent him in with a stack of papers on service dogs and the laws regarding them in public schools. I told him to call me from the meeting with any questions or problems. He called me about 30 minutes after the meeting started to let me know that the school board decided to write the policy very general and was nearly a cut and paste from the ADA law on public access!
In the nurse’s office after an alert
After that, I had to write a letter to the school principal asking for the accommodation and for Daisy to be added into Laura’s 504 plan at school. At the end of last school year there was a meeting held between myself, the principal, all of the 5th grade teachers that Laura would have the following year and the school nurse. Laura and Daisy also attended. I was asked to provide a copy of Daisy’s immunizations, which I gladly did. I shared how I visioned this all working and the teachers, principal and nurse all worked with me to come up with a plan. In the end, Laura’s 504 plan had Daisy added to it with one simple sentence, “Laura will be able to bring her service dog to school and to any school sponsored activity.” That was it! No limitations, no restrictions, no crazy rules. The principal told me she wanted it very broad because this was a work in progress for all of us and none of us knew exactly how things were going to go. And just to show off, Daisy alerted to a high right in the middle of this meeting in front of all those teachers, the principal and the nurse! I do think that the ease with which we got approval for Daisy to come to school is not usual. We were fortunate. I always tried to communicate with the school and the school board, be honest and try to work with them, not against them. From the beginning I assured them that I would not send Laura to school with Daisy unless I was 100% sure that Laura could handle her on her own, that I did not expect the staff to be responsible at all for the dog, that I wanted the school to communicate with the parents of the other students in Laura’s grade to make sure that no one with dog allergies or extreme fear of dogs was put in Laura’s class and that I would be present in the school for the first 2 weeks of school to trouble shoot any problems. With lots of planning, open communication and luck, Laura and Daisy go to school without any problems!
Have you run into any public access issues with Daisy outside of school? How have you handled them? How do these situations affect Laura?
We have had very few public access challenges, so far, and they have all been settled quickly and easily. Our first was actually on our way home from Virginia with Daisy. We stopped at a rest stop on the PA Turnpike for a break and a staff person came up to us and asked if our dog was a service dog. Daisy was in her vest with “Service Dog” written all over her but I assured this woman that yes, she was a service dog, and she said, OK, and left us alone. Another time we were shopping in a store in a strip mall which had a pet store a few doors down. The manager of the store we were in approached us and asked if Daisy was a service dog. I assured her that she was (again, in vest and behaving perfectly). The manager asked why she didn’t have ID on her vest. I did a little educating at that point, telling her that those ID cards she sees on service dogs are meaningless, that there is no licensing agency for service dogs and that anyone can buy one of those ID tags from a multitude of places on the Internet. I carry little cards with me that I purchased from Sit Stay that explain the ADA law regarding service dogs so I gave her one. She thanked me and said that she gets a lot of people trying to bring their pets into her store because they have just been to the pet store a few doors down. I could tell she wasn’t exactly thrilled that we were in her store but, she didn’t challenge me any further.
What ongoing training do you do to keep Daisy sharp?
Training with Scott Smith
Ongoing training! Oh my, yes, we are always training. Every alert, every time we go out in public, every time we go outside to play or for a walk, we are always training! I’m always trying to push myself, Laura and Daisy to learn new things and to practice old things in new situations. Laura and I will often head out to the mall or to a store just to work on things like heeling, keeping place, focus and alerting while there are distractions around. We spend a lot of time on soccer fields during the fall and spring so I did a ton of practice with Daisy this past fall with keeping place on the sideline while 20 or more little girls run around chasing a ball! Even when we are just hanging out at home, there are always opportunities for practice and training. With Daisy, it’s important that she do what we ask of her the first time she is asked. We always enforce that, even at home. With a pet, it’s a lot easier to “let it slide” if it doesn’t respond to a command correctly and immediately. With a service dog, you have to be sure you don’t allow yourself to get too relaxed and “let it slide” or else you could end up with a lot of trouble in the end.
Recently, Laura and Daisy have also been going to a local training facility to take a Rally-O class. It reinforces the obedience training but also is something fun for them to do together and it’s the only time when I take Daisy’s vest off in public and let her kind of be “just a dog”, allowing others to talk to her and pet her. The trainer for the class loves to handle Daisy for demonstrations and I think Daisy enjoys this time where she gets attention from others. And, yes, she still alerts during classes despite this relaxation of our service dog rules!
Laura and Daisy at Wildrose
Laura, tell us about when you first met Daisy – what was the situation and how did you feel?
Laura: When I first met Daisy we were visiting Virginia to go look at diabetes alert dogs. We went to 2 trainers on our trip. We went to the place where Daisy is from first. Her trainer brought out a few dogs for me to visit with. Then he brought Daisy out. It was love at first sight and I knew she was the dog for me! When we were finished visiting in Virginia, I was really sad to have to leave Daisy but I knew she was the dog for me and we would soon be coming back to get her.
What kind of training did you go through before you could take Daisy home?
Public access work with Scott
Laura: Before we could take Daisy home, I had to go through a lot of training. I had to learn how to take control of her and how to do the basic commands but I also had to learn how to take her out in public. That was the hardest part of our training!
When other kids ask why you have a dog at school what do you tell them?
Laura: The kids don’t ask why I have Daisy at school any more. But, when I first brought Daisy to school there were a zillion questions about her. I would just tell them that she is my diabetic alert dog or my service dog
Do you let Daisy interact with your schoolmates? What do they think of her?
Laura: No, I don’t let kids interact with Daisy at school because it distracts her from alerting. The kids don’t get mad at me when I tell them they can’t play with her because they know she is taking care of me. I have more problems with the teachers wanting to pet her than the kids!
If I try to imagine myself at your age I think it would make me feel pretty special getting to have my dog with me all the time, especially at school. But sometimes I think I would get tired of being “special” and I would just want to be a normal kid like everyone else. Do you ever feel like this with Daisy?
Laura: Sometimes I wish I didn’t always have Daisy with me because we can’t go anywhere without people asking questions and staring at us. At school it’s hard sometimes because I have to make sure she doesn’t get bumped or stepped on. Sometimes she slows us down because we have to make sure she’s paying attention and listening.
What is the best part of having Daisy?
Laura: The best part of having Daisy is that I get to take my dog everywhere I go! Not many people can just walk into stores with their dog. It’s fun having her around and she makes me feel safe!
What is the worst or most frustrating part of having Daisy?
Laura: One of the most frustrating parts of having Daisy is that I have to check my blood sugar every time she alerts and sometimes I don’t want to.
Daisy, tell us what you think of your life with Laura and her family.
Daisy (as translated by Laura and Brenda): I love my life with Laura and her family! They are nice and they take care of me. I know I have an important job to do and I make my people so happy when I tell them that Laura smells funny! Those crazy people get all excited when I let them know I smell those smells and they talk in high squeaky voices, give me great belly rubs and feed me yummy treats! And when we go out in the back yard to play with tennis balls, well, there’s nothing better. I don’t quite get why they can’t just smell themselves when Laura smells funny but, they are only humans after all! Us dogs have to do for our people, what they can’t do for themselves. It’s ok though because I need my people to open my kibble bag, throw my tennis balls and cuddle up with me. Life is good!
Brenda, Laura & Daisy – thanks a million for contributing to the blog and sharing your story. I hope we get to meet in person some day. Maybe at a Wildrose conference if I can ever get that far south!