Happy Pet Week!

In honor of Pet Week, we are featuring service dogs that help our Champions manage their diabetes.

Introducing Terry O’ Rourke and his service dog, Norm!

Tell us about your Service Dog: Norm is a 56-pound male Yellow Labrador Retriever. He just turned six this month. He’s trained to alert me whenever my blood glucose drops below 100 mg/dl.

When and why did you get Norm?

Norm and I teamed up in March of 2010. I live alone and living long-term with type 1 diabetes taught me that no matter how close attention one pays to blood glucose levels, dangerous hypoglycemia can sneak up on you. I had some scary episodes that undermined my confidence to live safely.  My daughter and siblings were rightfully concerned.

I didn’t have many of these episodes because I’ve always been vigilant about frequently checking my blood glucose with a meter and more recently a continuous blood glucose monitor.

I live aboard a sailboat and mariners often live by the safety ethic of using multiple redundant safety systems due to the dire consequences of failure – like sinking your boat! I think using a service dog for low blood sugar alerts as providing me with overlapping safety systems. Norm is not always the first to discover a low or trending low blood glucose level, but he does often enough.  Norm earns his keep and has alerted me more than once to dangerous low blood glucose when I was not aware.

How does one become a candidate for a Service Dog?

There are a variety of organizations that train service dogs for hypoglycemia alert. Some are non-profits and some are for-profit enterprises. I applied to a non-profit organization called Dogs for Diabetics. I contacted them online and submitted a preliminary application. At the first screening they want to ascertain that you are a person with diabetes that uses insulin to control your blood sugar.

A second long form application required a form signed by your doctor verifying your diabetes as well as a 30-day record of your finger-stick meter readings. The training organization wants to know that you’re serious about controlling your blood glucose. They don’t want candidates who are not already making a serious effort to control blood glucose levels. I guess their experience shows that people who are currently making considerable effort to control their blood sugar levels will also be people that devote the time and effort to be part of a successful service dog team.

The long form application also asks questions about your living and working situation. Many jobs are suitable for service dog teams, but not every job. For instance, a cook that works in a commercial kitchen would not make a good candidate since this working environment is unsafe for the dog and also other workers. When Norm was placed with me I was working full-time as an avionics technician in a shop for a major commercial airline. It was a relatively quiet and benign environment for Norm to fit in.

The candidate’s living situation also affects whether a placement is likely to succeed. The placing organization wants to know if there are any other animals in the household as well as other people. It wants to ensure that the dog’s basic needs for food, water, and good access to a place to relieve can be met. They also perform a home visit to verify that the placement is likely to succeed. Living on a boat did not deter them from considering my application.

What training has Norm gone through? Where did the training take place?

Norm’s training and certification process was extensive. He was born and bred at the Guide Dogs for the Blind facility in San Rafael, California. Guide Dogs for the Blind has been in the service dog business since World War II and runs a sophisticated breeding program that seeks to maximize the percentage of successful placements with sight-impaired people.

All their puppies are placed with volunteer puppy raisers who actively participate in local clubs that regularly meet to discuss obedience and socialization topics. Guide Dog puppy raisers are clustered regionally in the western US. Their job is to instill great obedience skills as well as exposing their puppies to a wide variety of human environments like grocery stores, doctor offices, churches, and even sporting events. Norm’s puppy raiser was a second year high school girl.

Norm washed out of the Guide Dog program (dog distraction) and was career changed to Dogs for Diabetics in Concord, California. There he went through a few months of scent training. He learned to associate positive rewards, specifically food treats, with detecting and alerting when he smelled the scent of low blood glucose.

Norm’s primary alert to me is placing a pendant, called a bringsel, that hangs from his neck collar into his mouth and getting my attention. My pact with him is to always check my blood sugar and reward him if it is less than 100 mg/dl. This relatively high level was chosen so that I would have ample time and cognitive acuity to respond to a falling blood sugar.

I attended a two-week team-training session and our group of seven candidates worked with a group of ten canine candidates. The trainers carefully watched how the dogs interacted with the various humans, looking for that special chemistry that foretold a solid bond. During team training we learned about dog psychology, physiology, obedience reinforcement, and negotiating some of the social impediments that teams face. We made several excursions into the community, used public transportation, ate a variety of restaurants, and even visited Pier 39 in San Francisco.

It was during team training that trainers decide who was paired with which dog. It was a curious art of human-canine matchmaking. I think they made a great decision pairing Norm with me!

What was the transition like day-to-day once you received Norm?

Norm was the first dog ever that’s lived with me. I never had a pet when I was growing up. Norm adapted to my life smoothly. He slept when I slept and got up when I got up. When we first started as team, I was working the afternoon shift, from 3:00 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. I usually stayed up until 1-2 a.m.

I had to get used to doing all my daily activities with my left hand on Norm’s leash as we moved about in the world. Norm’s only weakness was reacting to other dogs, but that was solved once I started using the head collar leash. The biggest challenge that I had to meet was managing the amount of social interaction for Norm. His primary duty was alert to my blood sugar levels and I couldn’t allow so much interaction that it distracted him from that duty. Of course, Norm is a fit and attractive dog and many people want to say “hi” and pet him. I’m usually generous with this as I’m able to inform people this way about diabetes. Sometimes, especially if I’m experiencing a low blood sugar, I need to wave people off.

All in all the transition went smoothly, mostly due to Norm’s easy, obedient, and undemanding nature.

How does Norm assist you in managing your diabetes?

Norm is especially effective when I’m distracted by life or engaged in a project and he provides the gentle reminder to check my sugar. I value highly Norm’s alerts when I’m sleeping. Successful nighttime alerts earn Norm a generous dollop of peanut butter, a prize he relishes.

Other than helping with managing your diabetes, what is your relationship like with Norm? How does he add to your quality of life?

I’ve never lived with an animal or pet before Norm.  His attitude toward life reminds me to live in the here and now, for it’s all we ever have. Norm gets up each day and after a few preliminary stretches, he bursts with infectious enthusiasm wagging his tail, as if to ask, “Isn’t it just great to be alive?”

When he gets a treat for a successful alert, he’ll often rest his head on my lap until the low passes. This physical closeness provides emotional support that truly restores the spirit.  The depth and nature of this human/dog bond surprised me. His attention to me is palpable.

I’ve read that people with diabetes may be at greater risk for depression. There are no diabetes vacations, never a day off from its relentless demands. Norm willingly shares these burdens with me. I am amazed and ever grateful!

What are common misconceptions about Service Dogs?

I’m often asked if I’m training Norm. Diabetes is not physically obvious. I clearly can see and I’m physically mobile.  Sometimes people are skeptical of Norm’s status as a service dog due to the fact that diabetes is not readily apparent to people.

Good social etiquette around service dog teams is not obvious to everyone. Never seek the dog’s attention first. Always ask the dog’s handler if it’s OK to say “hi” to the dog. Don’t feel insulted if the handler does not grant that permission.  There can be many good reasons that have nothing to do with the requestor. The dog’s primary duty is to the handler, not the public.

A few people have expressed to me that they think that the quality of life of a service dog is degraded by his primary job; the dog can never just be a dog. I understand this, but I don’t see it that way at all. Most pets would love to accompany their owner wherever s/he goes, but can’t. I rarely have to separate from Norm. He goes with me almost everywhere. I left him with a neighbor when I had to get an MRI, but the hospital nurses assured me that they would have loved to take care of him when I was undergoing imaging.  I do let Norm run off leash in certain circumstances. He’s as fast as a jackrabbit and will also spin in place doing his happy dance.

Do you have any stories involving your Service Dog that you want to share?

One night while sleeping, Norm jumped up onto my bed and licked my face. I immediately checked my continuous glucose monitor (CGM) and it read 89, treat-worthy for Norm, but not a big concern for me. I then did a finger stick check and it read 39, a dangerous low blood glucose!  My CGM lags actual blood glucose values by 15 or 20 minutes. Norm caught that precipitous blood glucose dive right when it happened and gave me the precious opportunity to treat before I went unconscious.  After treating that low, Norm and I had a boisterous midnight peanut butter party!


Credit: Tara Layman Photography

Stay tuned for more service dog features from our VPR POP family later in the week. If you have a great story you want to share, please feel free to reach out to us.

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