Animal trained to keep tabs on four-year-old’s diabetes via scent
Four-year-old Sophie Mullins of Paradise was bursting with excitement as her family waited in the arrivals area of St. John’s International Airport Monday morning.
“Where’s Peaches?” she periodically asked her parents, referring to a five-month-old black Labrador retriever specially trained to monitor her blood-sugar levels. Sophie has Type 1 diabetes.
As trainer Phoebe Bault began walking down the stairs with Peaches on a leash, Sophie leapt into the air. Amongst a gathering of family and friends, she was the first to greet her new four-legged friend.
“I like her,” she told her family as she lay beside Peaches, hugging the dog and peppering her with kisses.
Peaches, wearing a pink bandana around her neck, was remarkably calm throughout the first encounter with her new owners.
Last year, the Mullins family raised the necessary $25,000 to purchase the dog — with a big boost from an anonymous donor — through Warren Retrievers, a company based in Virginia. The actual cost of a trained dog is $40,000, but the company assists families with the cost through Guardian Angel Service Dogs, its philanthropic arm.
Peaches has the ability to sense whether Sophie’s blood-sugar levels are high or low by scent. She will bark or perform a trick to alert others of the child’s condition. If that fails to attract attention, the dog can also push a button to call 911.
Bault, who was contracted by Warren Retrievers to train Peaches and accompany her to St. John’s, says diabetic alert dogs begin training at the age of seven weeks, focusing first on obedience.
“You can see how calm she is compared to some of the puppies that you may meet as a Lab,” said Bault, keeping a watchful eye on Sophie and Peaches as she spoke with The Telegram.
In order to best serve Sophie’s needs, Bault says Peaches must focus on the scent emanating from the girl. This is achieved by creating a bond between the pair.
“There are a lot of other companies who would deliver a dog after they are two or three years old,” said Bault. “That’s what is a little different about our company, that we’ll place a puppy to create a stronger bond.”
Bault will stay in Newfoundland for four days to help the Mullins family adjust to life with Peaches. She will also come back for visits every 90-120 days until the dog reaches the age of two years.
Peaches now a working pup
For now, Bault will help Sophie
and Peaches find an activity to encourage the bond between them. She also must help Peaches become aware that she works for the Mullins family.
The family hopes Peaches will be particularly helpful at night given the unpredictable nature of Type 1 diabetes. Sophie’s blood-sugar levels are checked at least 12 times daily.
Jamie Mullins and fiancée
Heidi Pavelka regularly get up in
the middle of the night to check on their daughter. In the past, when a power outage has reset their alarm clock, they have found Sophie experiencing blood-sugar levels so low that she was on the verge of a hypoglycemic reaction, putting her life in danger.
Sophie was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes a few months after her first birthday.
Mullins said it was hard to maintain his composure watching Sophie interact with her new dog. Other family members were observed with tears in their eyes as the child met Peaches.
“It’s been a long time coming, and we’re just excited to get this next chapter started,” he said. “The previous chapter has been pretty rocky, and we’re hoping this next one is a little smoother now.”
He was immediately struck by how calm Peaches was while interacting with his daughter.
“Just look at her temperament,” he said as the pair lay together on the floor of the airport. “It’s amazing. ... Look, she loves her so much already.”