Hope wears a tail

Colin MacLean
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Paradise family raising money to buy diabetic alert dog

Sophie Mullins, 3, poses for a recent picture. Sophie is from Paradise and her parents, Jamie Mullins and Heidi Pavelka, are raising money to buy her a diabetic alert dog.
— Submitted photo

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 science

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.

 

Hope

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.

cmaclean@thetelegram.com

Twitter: @TelegramMacLean

Organizations: CBC, Service Dogs, United States Marine Corps American Kennel Club

Geographic location: Saskatchewan, Orange, Va.The, Newfoundland and Labrador

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Comments

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Recent comments

  • Elizabeth Ann Sceerey
    October 01, 2012 - 10:03

    Jamie, Heidi & Sophie......You are going to soooooo love & appreciate your dog!! I know a little of what you are going through I have 2 children with type I diabetes who were 8 & 9 when diagnosed, they are now 22 & 26 & have become very mature compassionate adults. One other thing that may help is an insulin pump but I'm sure that has been suggested already. I'm a Newfoundlander as well :)

  • Common Sense
    September 25, 2012 - 06:39

    Yes I hope they get the dog and everything but they still won't be able to rely 100% on it. What I read was that their child could have died because the power went so I suggested two alarms to ensure that tragedy wouldn't happen.

    • Heidi
      September 25, 2012 - 07:10

      We would not rely on our dog 100% and would still check Sophie's sugar 3 times a night which is more than some do. As we said before the dog will offer an extra layer of protection and give Sophie a little more freedom. We check her more often as she is most unpredictable at night. Instead of every 2 hours now we could scale that back once the dog is fully trained. I have no issue with someone offering advice but it's nice to be courteous and kind to people rather than starting with "commom sense" We have actaully been told by health professionals we check to often but we worry so much at night that we still check often. I hope you never have to know the feeling of going into your child's room at night and holding your breath while making sure they are still breathing. Bottom line our service dog is going to give us piece of mind that we have another guardian angel watching out for Sophie. Thank you to all who have responed with donations and such kind words in response to our story. Sophie thanks you all from the bottom of her sweet little heart!!

  • Sometimes I Wonder
    September 24, 2012 - 16:16

    Sometimes I wonder if people can really be so blind. Is the alarm all u read COMMON SENSE? What a beautiful little girl. I know her service dog will be her guardian and best friend. Wishing you Sophie and your family all the best! Just ignore the rotten comment and maybe COMMON SENSE should have borrowed some common sense before he/she posted such a mean comment. There are some idiots out there but try to remember those who give you strength and happiness for Sophie!

  • Common Sense
    September 24, 2012 - 15:36

    Holy moly! I was just trying to make a suggestion to make it safer for your family. The point of the story was getting a dog so you could have extra piece of mind and not have to rely entirely on an alarm clock that may fail so I was suggesting an extra one because it didn't seem like you had set two. Whoever Beep beep beep is needs to calm down and relax...seriously. A tad bit over the top. I do in fact have children and a heart and I know how scary it is to have a sick child with life threatening allergies so I can imagine how difficult it is with diabetes.

  • Common Sense
    September 24, 2012 - 15:30

    Holy moly! I was just trying to make a suggestion to make it safer for your family. The point of the story was getting a dog so you could have extra piece of mind and not have to rely entirely on an alarm clock that may fail so I was suggesting an extra one because it didn't seem like you had set two. Whoever Beep beep beep is needs to calm down and relax...seriously. A tad bit over the top. I do in fact have children and a heart and I know how scary it is to have a sick child with life threatening allergies so I can imagine how difficult it is with diabetes.

  • Common sense
    September 24, 2012 - 11:15

    May I suggest two alarms? Maybe one on a watch or a phone as a backup just in case the power goes? Since it's such an important task you are waking up for maybe trusting one alarm clock is not the best idea.

    • Beep Beep Beep
      September 24, 2012 - 12:26

      May I suggest you mind your own damn business! The words I would want to call you right now, they will not publish. The point of the story was the happiness of getting this potential life saving dog, not that they missed the alarm, you moron! Maybe the best idea at a time like this is butting out and being happy for a young family that will be welcoming a much needed relief into their lives. You obviously don't have children, or a heart for that matter! Holy hell, it always amazes me how stupid people are, and just when I began to have a little hope, I read a comment from a jackass like you! On a better note - the best of luck with the new dog, and I certainly hope you can raise the money sooner than later, i'm sure it will be a well deserved sigh of relief for your family!

    • Heidi
      September 24, 2012 - 14:15

      Clearly you have no idea what it is like to have a diabetic child. For your information we always set 2 alarms. This paticular night we had a cellphone and alarm set and never heard either. You can only inagine how scary it was to wake up and realize we missed a check. We check Sophie's sugar every 2 hours bse she is so unpredictable and I guess being overtired that was what happened. To think there are ppl out there who are so miserable in thier own lives they would pick apart this story amazes me. We love our daughter more than anything and are trying our best to make her life better by adding an extra layer of protection especially at night. I feel sorry for you...I reallly do.