Dog can sense teen’s low, high blood sugar
by Staff Writer
MOORESVILLE – Fifteen-year-old Alden Phelps has a new best friend - Zappa. He’s furry, friendly and could one day save her life.
Zappa, a 13-month-old Golden Retriever, is a medical assistance dog. He arrived to his new home in Mooresville with the Phelps family less than two weeks ago from Kansas and is undergoing training to alert Alden, a diabetic teen, when her blood sugar levels become too high or low.
“He checks my sugar levels by smelling my hand,” Alden said. “If he detects that something is wrong, he’ll jump up on my lap. He’s taught to be persistent about it.”
After Zappa gives the alert, Alden knows to check her blood sugar and treat her condition.
Alden and her mother, Staci Phelps, only give Zappa special treats – beef jerky is his favorite – if the dog completes a successful alert. He’s still in the middle of his specialized medical training, but Staci Phelps said she thinks the dog completed his first alert about a week after being home.
“He abandoned two of his toys to go to Alden,” Staci Phelps said. “She checked and she was significantly high. We think he knows to alert her if her blood sugar gets to extreme levels. Now we just need to narrow down his parameters a bit.”
The Phelps family received Zappa through Canine Assistance Rehabilitation Education and Services, a foundation in Concordia, Kan., that trains canine assistance dogs for service.
Zappa’s first home was at the Ellsworth Correctional Facility in Kansas, where CARES has a partnership with the prison. CARES assigns puppies to inmate trainers who teach the animals basic obedience and socialization skills for three to six months.
He then traveled to Tennessee to stay with a foster owner to develop more specialized skills. Zappa has learned more than 50 commands – one of which requires him to lie motionless only inches away from a snack.
“I was a preschool teacher for 10 years, and he listens better than most children,” Staci Phelps said.
Most insurance companies don’t cover the cost of medical assistance dogs, making them a hefty investment. They could cost a patient up to $25,000, but CARES provides a more affordable option. The Phelps family paid only $2,500 for Zappa. But they had to travel to Kansas to pick the dog up and attend a one-week training class.
During the training, the dog and the owner learned to work together and develop the skills to pass the Public Access Test – the assessment used to determine whether a dog is deemed safe to be in public and the owner can control of the dog.
Zappa’s already proven to be an indispensable part of the Phelps’ family, fitting right in with the family’s other pets, a cat and Pomeranian. He sleeps in Alden’s bed – like a human, head on the pillow – and goes where she goes.
When he’s “on the job,” as Alden calls the times when she’s out in public with Zappa, he wears his official service dog vest that includes proof of his service certification and a pouch where Alden can keep her finger pricker to test her blood sugar level and a sugary snack in case her levels get too low.
He’s a bounding, energetic puppy at the family’s home but once the vest goes on, Zappa’s all business.
“He knows when he’s working and when he’s off the clock,” Staci Phelps said.
Alden is homeschooled, but once she goes to college in a few years, Zappa will move into her dorm or apartment with her. Staci Phelps said he will save her from the constant stress that goes with having a diabetic child away from home.
Staci Phelps said she wished she would have known about CARES when Alden was diagnosed a decade ago. The family said they hope to do some fundraising to help an underprivileged diabetic child receive a medical assistance dog.
“We know that a lot of parents of diabetic children don’t even know that these dogs exist,” Staci Phelps said. “Just knowing about this earlier would have really put my mind at ease right after Alden was diagnosed.”
Want to know more?
Go online to www.caresks.com to learn more about CARES Inc. and how to apply for a medical assistance dog. CARES provides medical assistance and therapy dogs for patients with a variety of medical conditions, including diabetes, epilepsy and post traumatic stress disorder.