The scene outside of the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department on Tuesday evening represented quite a contrast between two future best friends.
Six-year-old Nathaniel Sams was spiritedly engaged in a game of tag with other children while Malachi, the 11-week-old chocolate labrador that Nathaniel had received earlier in the day, was winding down, attempting to catch a quick nap before making his way to his new home.
And while many walks and games of fetch are sure to take place in the coming years, Malachi will serve an even greater purpose than acting as man’s best friend. He may one day save Nathaniel’s life.
Nathaniel was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in late May. This revelation proved to be eye-opening for Nathaniel’s parents, Donna and John, who admit they knew nothing about diabetes before their son’s diagnosis.
“When they told us Nathaniel had diabetes, me and John looked at each other and were like, ‘OK, how long has he got to live?’ We didn’t know,” Donna said. “And then you look back and you’re thinking of all those times, all those slight little symptoms that we would see, and it’s like he was so close to death so many times that we didn’t even know it.”
Type 1 diabetes is a chronic disease in which the body produces little or none of the hormone insulin, which is needed to convert food into energy. The dangers of this form of diabetes include coma and seizures, and long-term effects may include eyesight, circulation and kidney problems. Although type 1 diabetes is not curable, it can be managed with insulin injections. If left unchecked, type 1 diabetes can be fatal.
“It’s a pretty aggressive, silent killer,” Donna said.
It was the Bluff City family’s affinity for canine companionship that eventually led them to Malachi. Following the birth of a litter of Doberman puppies, Donna said she asked a trainer if dogs could be trained to detect drops or spikes in blood sugar levels. Further research into her own query would lead Donna to Warren Retrievers.
The Montpelier, Va.-based Warren Retrievers is a breeder of labrador retrievers that are purchased to serve as family pets, therapy dogs, search and rescue dogs, service dogs, and diabetic alert dogs, which Malachi is being trained to become.
Cheri Campbell, a trainer with Warren Retrievers, said the use of diabetic alert dogs is still a fairly new concept, but an effective one. Campbell will remain with the Sams family this week to ensure that Malachi’s transition into his new surroundings goes smoothly. Campbell will also check in with the Sams family weekly via phone or Skype and will make quarterly visits to further Malachi’s training.
“We are in constant contact with them,” Campbell said.
Diabetics with high blood sugar levels give off a sweet, almost cotton candy-like scent, Donna said. When blood sugar levels drop, they will put off a sour, acidy scent.
Donna said diabetic alert dogs can detect drops or increases in blood sugar levels through their powerful sense of smell and are trained to alert the person with diabetes or others when these drops or rises occur. These dogs, she said, can sense an increase or decrease 20 to 45 minutes before a glucose monitoring device.
“It’s all the nose...You can take your blood sugar and get a reading of 90 or 100, which is great, and the dog can keep persistently alerting you and you can check it again 15 minutes later and you’re low,” Donna said. “The dog knew long before you did.”
At first, a diabetic alert dog will emit a distinct cry or whine to alert its owner of these drops or increases. As the dog gets older, it will learn to alert its owner of blood sugar drops and increases through means such as touching with its paws and licking. Diabetic alert dogs are also trained to retrieve medication when needed and even dial 911 through a special device if necessary, Donna said.
“They’re taught to alert until it’s recognized,” Campbell said of diabetic alert dogs.
Since their son’s diagnosis, Donna said she and John have slept in for hour shifts every night because someone must keep an eye on Nathaniel’s blood sugar levels. They are hopeful having Malachi around will ease some of their anxiety.
Through the Americans with Disabilities Act, no matter where Nathaniel goes, whether it’s school, a movie or a ball game, Malachi will be by his side, Donna said.
“Anywhere Nathaniel goes, Malachi will be right there with him,” she said. “This is a permanent buddy for him.”
The Sams family held a fundraising cookout Tuesday outside of the UCSD to help pay for the purchase of Malachi and have other fundraising events planned. The family will next be at the Elizabethton Chick-fil-A location on Oct. 20 from 5-8 p.m.
For more information on diabetic alert dogs, visit www.diabeticalertdogs.com, warrenretrievers.com, or guardianangelservicedogs.org.