It has been about six years since a woman came to Oxford’s Wildrose Kennels seeking help training her diabetic service dog. The animal was a British Labrador from the same bloodline as Wildrose’s famous hunting dogs.
That beginning led to more work with service dogs, which Wildrose founder Mike Stewart has developed into a training method for Diabetic Alert Dogs (DADS) as a non-profit addition to their other training programs.
“You can get these dogs to find anything you train them to find,” said a confident Stewart, who had been training dogs for years before his kennel program took off in 1998. Though the training process is similar, Stewart says preparing service dogs is a very different and rewarding experience.
“It’s one thing to train a dog to pick up a duck for a guy, another when you document a dog saving a life,” Stewart said. The former University Police Department chief recounted a remarkable story about a DAD who alerted its owner to a cancerous tumor later confirmed by a medical exam.
Diabetic Alert Dogs shouldn’t be thought of as replacements for blood glucose meters, says Stewart. He explains the dogs can alert a diabetic about high or low blood sugar 30 minutes to an hour before a glucose meter through their keen sense of detection, but people at risk are best advised to rely on regulated medical equipment.
“Diabetes is one of the top three health threats in the U.S. — anything we can do to improve the life of a diabetic is a tool,” Stewart said.
Sharon Stinson, a mother and piano instructor, agrees that Diabetic Alert Dogs enrich the lives of those living with type-1 diabetes. She credits her aptly named dog, Gracie, with saving her life on many occasions. “I can’t count all the times that Gracie woke me up at 3 a.m. and my sugar level was at 49,” Stinson said, adding that without Gracie’s timely alert, her low blood sugar could have killed her.
Stewart breeds and trains this line of British Labradors because of three main characteristics: they’re smaller than the average lab; they’re generally calm; and they’re quickly trained because they’ve been bred for generations for scent work. Wildrose has even trained two dogs for dual careers — DADS and hunting..
Trainers and owners alike can detect the dog’s intuition and genuine concern. “I’ve seen them alert through solid walls,” Stewart said. “We don’t know all the mysteries of it and that’s pretty cool.”
Stewart believes dogs have an intelligence misunderstood by humans. “Dogs have a whole lot of reasoning we don’t know about,” he added.
Stinson opted to train her DAD herself in order to save money and develop a tighter bond with her new helper. She was amazed by the puppy’s immediate connection to her. “With the first dog, she started sniffing my high blood pressure before I even taught her anything,” Stinson said.
DADs training is intensely involved. It requires smooth teamwork between dogs, trainers and owners. While in training, the dogs go everywhere with their trainers, just as they would with their owner. Practice with a trainer is essential, says Stewart.
“These dogs are service dogs, so they can go anywhere with a person with a handicap — unless they become disruptive,” Stewart said.
Although they’re service dogs, Diabetes Alert Dogs aren’t as famous as Seeing Eye Dogs. Stinson admits she and her service dog have been asked to leave public places, — verbally and through dirty looks and whispers. “I’ve only lost it twice,” Stinson said laughing.
Stinson welcomes the curious, happy to educate the public about her service dog. “I don’t mind people asking me questions,” she said. “I think it’s such a wonderful thing, and I’m happy to talk about it.” Both Stewart and Stinson agree that it’s important for the public to recognize that a DAD, or any service dog, is on duty and cannot be distracted. “People try to look at her and talk to her and pet her, and that’s hard, especially when we’re training,” Stinson said.
Although Diabetes Alert Dogs have enriched many lives, Stewart understands the dogs aren’t for everyone. The dogs can only serve individuals with type-1 diabetes, he adds, and typically, young children aren’t as successful handling the dogs. Wildrose Kennels requires appropriate paperwork before considering a candidate and requires DADs owners to return to the kennels periodically for seminars.
Wildrose Kennels runs the national Diabetes Alert Dog Training Conference, established in 2009, bringing dogs and owners together nationwide to share information and continuously train owners and dogs
Even before DADs, Wildrose put Oxford on the map in the world of dog training. The kennel has sent dogs out to all 50 states, every Canadian province and worldwide. It has associate trainers in several states who lead workshops and additional facilities in Arkansas and Colorado that work with Wildrose dogs.
“Another really unique aspect of Wildrose is how far deployed we are around the U.S.,” Stewart said. Wildrose and Mike Stewart have been featured in news outlets including Garden and Gun, Good Morning America and ABC News. Stinson says it wasn’t the news media that led her to her beloved Gracie.
“I think it was The Lord letting me know that I needed to get this dog,” Stinson said. She believes her trusted companion is part of a divine plan. “It just gives you such a peace of mind — for my family and for myself,” Stinson said. “I can’t tell you how much of a blessing it is; they’re like your guardian angel.”
—Grace Sullivan, journalism student, Meek School of Journalism and New Media