It’s 3 a.m. and power to the Mullins’ family Paradise home has flickered off and on.
Heidi Pavelka and fiancé Jamie Mullins suddenly awake with a start and bolt down the hall to their baby girl’s bedroom.
The power outage has reset their alarm clock and they’ve missed a scheduled wake-up call to check Sophie’s blood sugar levels.
With trembling hands they arrange the equipment to check her blood — only to find that her levels are so low she’s on the verge of a hypoglycemic reaction. Her three-year-old life is in danger.
That exact situation has happened before, Mullins told The Telegram during a recent interview, and it’s terrifying every time.
But now, after more than two years of going to bed worried about their daughter’s health, the Mullins family has a ray of hope on the horizon.
And it has a tail.
The Mullins family is saving money to get Sophie a diabetic alert dog.
This dog will be specially trained to stay by her side 24 hours a day for its entire life, and will detect if her blood sugar levels get too high or too low. It works like an early warning system. It will even run for help and call 911 if she has an emergency.
Yes, you read that right — the dog will call 911.
It’s impossible to overstate how much the family is looking forward to finally getting this puppy, said Mullins.
“Once the dog is here, and it’s fully trained, it’s like you get a great big bear hug of support and extra protection. It’s going to be night-and-day different around here,” he said.
Sophie was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes a few months after her first birthday. That means her pancreas no longer produces the insulin her body needs to soak up excess sugar in her blood.
Until a cure is found she will have to religiously monitor her blood sugar levels for the rest of her life or risk potentially fatal side-effects.
Until she’s old enough to do it herself, her parents will check her levels for her — once every two hours, 24 hours a day.
“Everybody doesn’t just get to go to bed. We’re at this all the time,” said Mullins. “It’s a racket b’y. There’s nothing fun about this.”
One night about a year ago the family came across what seemed like a miracle. They’d watched a report on CBC’s “The National” that followed a Saskatchewan family through the experience of having a diabetic alert dog.
They were blown away.
Heidi started doing her own research from there. She poured through scientific documents, news stories and reached out to several families already using the dogs.
Eventually the same family featured in the CBC story contacted her.
They put her in touch with the organization they’d gotten their dog from, Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers, based in Orange, Va.
The couple has been put on a waiting list for a dog and are about halfway towards reaching their fundraising goal of $25,000.
That money will buy them a dog, which has a guaranteed working life of 10 years, along with 24 months of training and the animal’s lifetime of support from Warren Retrievers.
Mullins said their community and family has been tremendously supportive of them financially, but it’s a lot of money so they’re open to donations.
Heidi also keeps an online blog that has a “donate” button built in.
Anyone who’d like to help
Sophie get her service dog can
contribute by logging on to www.paws4sophie.doodlekit.com.
How it works
Dan Warren, a former dog trainer for the United States Marine Corps, founded Warren Retrievers several years ago. He spoke with The Telegram last week about his company.
It’s a non-profit organization and operates primarily on donations and grants.
The actual cost of training a diabetic alert dog is more than $40,000. Being a non-profit organization helps making buying the animals more attainable for families, said Warren.
The training regimen for their diabetic alert dogs starts from the moment the puppies are born, he said, and continues for the entire working life of the animal.
They use Labrador retrievers.
“They’re one of the absolute best breeds,” said Warren. “Labradors we all know. There’s a reason for the American Kennel Club (naming) them 19 years and running the top dog. They’re loyal, they’re very eager to please, they’re highly trainable and they do have exceptional scenting capability.”
That sense of smell is the key here, he added.
The dog’s sense of smell is so acute that they can detect changes in a person’s blood sugar levels. In the case of a diabetic, if their blood sugar gets too high the dog will smell the extra sugar on the person’s breath and sweat.
Once the animal is sensitized to these smells as a puppy it becomes a matter of training it what to do once it detects those cues, said Warren.
Take, for example, the scenario of Sophie’s parents having to rush to her bedside.
If she’d had a detection dog with her, the dog would have been able to sense an attack up to a half hour before it happened, and would have known to go wake up her parents.
If, for whatever reason, the dog can’t wake up its masters, it’s trained to press a button on an emergency alert device that will dial 911 and play a recorded message asking for help. It would then fetch Sophie’s emergency kit and sit down beside her to wait for help.
The Mullins believe they might be the first family in Newfoundland and Labrador to use a diabetic alert dog, though they don’t know that for sure.
Using dogs to monitor blood sugar levels is a practice that is less than a decade old, so they’re still uncommon, said Warren.
Scientific research on the subject is still scarce. But what research has been done is very encouraging, he added.
“What we’re trying to do is to
scientize diabetic alert dogs, have empirical data peer reviewed and publicized in medical journals,” he said.
Sophie is excited at the prospect of getting a yellow puppy, chuckled her dad.
But her parents are excited at the prospect of letting their daughter sleep through the night, and not having to worry about her every second of the day.
Mullins said he has no qualms about trusting his daughter’s life to a service dog.
They’ve done their homework on this, he said, and just because the animal starts its job doesn’t mean they stop theirs. They will continue to closely monitor Sophie until she’s old enough to take on the responsibility.
Until then, she’ll have a little help from a new best friend.
“Even if the dog only saves her life once —it’s $25,000 well spent,” said Mullins.