Dog helps sniff out blood sugar danger
SINCE June 2009, Stafford County’s A.J. Schalk has paid more attention to what he eats and how he feels than the average youngster.
After rounds of extreme thirst, vomiting, nausea and dizziness in that life-changing stretch of summer, the athletic and easy-going youngster was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.
In the years since, A.J. and his parents, Karl and Kristin Schalk, have done all they could to educate themselves about an illness that he will have to manage for the rest of his life.
He’s gone from giving himself several rounds of insulin shots each day to using an insulin pump. Both approaches require constant testing to make sure his blood sugar levels don’t put his health in danger by going too high or too low.
It’s a constant threat the 13-year-old Dixon–Smith Middle School student and his parents know could take a limb, his eyesight or his life.
But since the first week of 2014, the family, which also includes 7-year-old Karli, has gotten spirit-lifting, face-licking and potentially life-saving reinforcements in the form of a young Lab named Alpha.
Alpha is a diabetes alert dog, who, when fully trained, can use his keen sense of smell to warn A.J. about any dangerously high or low blood sugar levels with a bark or the touch of a paw.
“He’ll be able to alert to any highs or lows, 20 to 40 minutes sooner than A.J. would have thought to test,” said Kristin Schalk. “It can truly mean the difference between life and death.”
That’s because Alpha isn’t just any old Lab. He’s a service dog being provided and trained by Warren Retrievers, a company in Madison County that provides dogs that help with everything from PTSD to diabetes.
That doesn’t mean he isn’t a lovable, tail-wagging and face-licking young Lab. But it does mean that he’s been specially trained for and with A.J.
The pair will continue to receive regular training as Alpha fine-tunes his ability to sense and warn his young charge of dangerously high or low blood sugar levels. With that warning, the youngster can react by either upping his insulin or taking a glucose tablet or other sugar source.
On the youngster’s Facebook page, titled “AJ and his new best friend—a Diabetes Alert Dog,” the eighth-grader has already praised Alpha several times for waking him in the night as his sugar levels were sinking toward problematic levels. His mother chimed in as well, noting that she once set a clock for 2:30 a.m., only to have Alpha bark A.J. awake not long after 1.
The youngster said having a new pal, a dog who’s also there to monitor his levels, gives him a sense of security he didn’t have before.
He noted that the first few years he realized he had diabetes, he could usually feel it when his blood sugar was high or low.
“My legs would feel a little weak or I’d feel kind of cranky,” said A.J. “But now my levels can be high or low and I won’t feel those signs at all.”
Lana King, a diabetes nurse educator at Mary Washington Healthcare, works closely with A.J. and his parents. She said the youngster does a good job of calculating everything he eats, his exercise and other factors to make sure he gets the proper amounts of insulin.
But King said that even the most conscientious of young people with diabetes have variables that can make calculating difficult.
“He’s an active 13-year-old, which means he needs to figure in the effect of exercise, hormonal changes and other factors,” she said. “It’s reassuring now that he has Alpha to warn him of any unexpected changes.”
Kristin Schalk, who’s made a regular practice of checking on A.J.’s levels once or twice a night, said she’s thrilled that Alpha is another safeguard.
“A.J. is a kid, which means sometimes he’s going to have the cake or the ice cream,” she said, noting that he’ll figure that into his insulin needs, just as he figures in hours of exercise on a swim team.
But making those calculations, she said, isn’t always an exact science.
Getting Alpha has required some inspired fundraising. The 501(c)3 Service Dogs By Warren Retrievers requires an owner to raise $25,000 to acquire the dog, continue to train it and to help perpetuate the organization.
The Schalks are more than halfway to that goal, achieved so far by donations and fundraisers that have included special evenings at local eateries such as Subway, Chick–fil–A and others.
While the family is thrilled to have Alpha now, A.J.’s parents also like the thought of a fully trained Alpha going off with their son when it’s time for college or to live on his own.
They and King hope their experience with Alpha will spread the word about these amazing dogs in this community. A recent community needs assessment listed diabetes as the No. 4 health priority, behind only cancer, cardiovascular disease and obesity.
To learn more or make a donation, go tosdwr.donordrive.com/campaign/AJSchalk.
Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415