Alert-trained service dogs expensive for families, but life-saving
Hannah Henry is 14, and she won't let her Type 1 diabetes slow her down. Her summer is scheduled for many days marching in the sun as a member of the drum line at College Station High School.
After spending last fall as a member of the front percussion ensemble, she learned that her performance under the Friday night lights took a toll on her blood sugar hours after she stepped off the field and slipped into bed.
Until recently, Hannah and her parents had no warning of when she could go into diabetic shock.
"Sometimes my blood sugar drops before I can feel it," Hannah said, sitting next to an 8-month-old yellow Labrador named Nala.
Nala is a Diabetes Alert Dog in training and the newest member of the Henry family.
For Melodi Henry, Hannah's mother, Nala is her peace of mind.
The young pup is trained to recognize the smell of Hannah's breath when her blood sugar is low or high, then use her paw to press on Hannah to alert her, Henry said.
At night, the dog will continue to press on Hannah until she wakes up. If she stays asleep, Henry said, Nala will get on her chest to try and wake Hannah. The final recourse is to alert Hannah's parents.
"I've slept every night for the past seven days," Henry said, sitting at her kitchen table.
The mother of eight -- ages 21 to 7 with six still living in the house -- spent nearly a decade thinking she would never be able to afford a service dog.
Training costs are upwards of $30,000 for diabetes and seizure alert dogs. Health care options are nonexistent, forcing families to pay out of pocket for some peace of mind.
When Hannah was diagnosed at age 6, her mother could only find one company in California that specialized in diabetes alert training.
"There was just no way we ever thought we could afford it," she said. "We couldn't even afford $2,000, let alone $15,000."
The Henrys' saving grace were Hannah's doctors and the assistance of family, friends, church members, teachers, marching band members and one special donor -- Randy French.
The owner of Stylecraft Builders heard from one of his employees, and member of the Henrys' congregation, about the fundraiser for the service dog.
French said on Tuesday that his experiences raising his daughter, Phyllis, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 11, made him sympathetic to the hardships the Henrys face. French donated the final $5,000 needed pay for the dog and added another $5,000 to settle the Henrys' medical debt.
"She's just a precious girl," French said of Hannah, adding, "I was delighted to do it."
Nala comes from Brooks Labradors in Lucas, where the dogs are trained from pups through 2 years old to work as different service dogs.
Nala is part of a pilot program. The younger puppy will continue to train with Hannah to learn the basic commands -- sit, stay, go potty, etc. -- as well as become accustomed to Hannah's scent when her blood sugar fluctuates.
Service alert dogs can be trained to detect more than seizures and low blood sugar. Their use has been extended to therapeutic rehabilitation of war veterans with post traumatic stress disorder, children with attention deficit hyper disorder and to guide the blind.
Peace of mind is just an added bonus for the parents, according to Gayla Ballew, another College Station parent who is hoping to get a service dog.
Ballew's daughter, Crystal, 31, has a rare syndrome called 10q Trisomy that typically causes death in the teen years.
Crystal has defied the odds, surviving with numerous ailments -- kidney and heart problems, balance issues, kidney problems, scoliosis, blindness, hearing difficulty and grand mal seizures -- which make it difficult to place a service dog.
The family is fundraising through FirstGiving.com, and is more than halfway toward the $14,000 goal. The money will pay for a dog to come from 4 Paws for Ability, a company in western Ohio with dogs specially trained to work with everything from autism to diabetes and, in Crystal's case, multipurpose assistance.
Crystal still lives with her parents, though Gayla and her husband, Sam, maintain that she lives as independently as possible.
"She has her room set up like a little apartment," Gayla said.
But at nights, when seizures can strike unexpectedly, Gayla worries if her daughter will continue to defy the odds.
"Her health is declining," Gayla said. "Her last seizure put her in the hospital for a week."
Gayla said finding 4 Paws for Abilities was an uphill battle, after being turned away from so many trainers because of Crystal's needs. The application and training process is extensive and includes a video recording of one of Crystal's seizures. Crystal and Gayla also will travel for a few weeks of training at the 4 Paws facility in Xenia, Ohio.
Some families fall into a trap when searching for an affordable solution to service dogs.
When Henry started researching service dogs in November, she said she noticed a lot of articles about people who were scammed and got untrained dogs from disreputable breeders.
The Diabetes Alert Dogs Alliance warns parents about these scams and recommends finding a breeder or trainer that meets the new training guidelines established in January by the Penn Vet Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
More information may also be found at the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners's website, www.iaadp.org.
Source: The Eagle Newspaper of Bryan/College Station, TX
Date: Wednesday, July 2, 2014