This is Peanut. He is a brown miniature poodle of only 2 years old. We got him when he was only 7 weeks old, dark brown and a little cuddle bum. When we went to go fetched him, he didn’t know he had a huge purpose and we didn’t know how we were going to accomplish the task ahead. See, Peanut is a diabetic alert dog for my 5 year old daughter who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes just shy of her 3rd birthday. Peanut is one of the first diabetic alert dogs in our country and 2 years ago when we started this journey there were no known success stories of diabetic alert dogs in South Africa and no trainer to help us on this journey.
The diagnoses of type 1 diabetes brings a lot of fears and uncertainty. One of the biggest ones that her sugar levels will drop dangerously low and she would be completely unaware of it. Normal sugar levels are between 4 and 8, anything below 4 can lead to a coma and there were more times then I would like to remember that her sugar was under 2 and she would still be running around, completely unaware. Now the body is an interesting thing, one day she can be under 2 and still be running around, but the next day that same number can mean a coma. A lot of children with type 1 diabetes pass away in their sleep because of low sugar levels. On the flip side high sugar levels lead to nerve damage, kidney failure and eye problems. Those are big fears to deal with and as parents we started looking at options to help ensure us that our little girl will be able to grow up healthy.
Technology is always an option in the form of a constant glucose meter, but the start up costs were very high and then also the monthly costs were unattainable for us. We were looking at more than R5000 per month for sensors that we as a family just couldn’t afford and most medical aids don’t pay for these meters. The mentality is that you can manage sugar levels with multiple finger pricks so a constant glucose meter is not needed.
After doing research, together with a friend, we came across the option of a diabetic alert dogs. We loved this option as it didn’t just mean a safety net, but also means a companion for her on a very lonely journey. Through a lot of research we realized it is a great option, but not an option available in South Africa. At that stage the only diabetic alert dog in South Africa was imported from America at the cost of R300 000 which wasn’t an option.
I phoned a trainer and asked her if she would be willing to help us train a diabetic alert dog. She was willing to give it a go and this is how the training journey officially started. We decided on a breed of dog and then the search started. We decided on a miniature poodle because they are the second most intelligent breed in the world, people-pleasers and small enough for a toddler to handle.
When Peanut was 8 weeks old he started in puppy class and has been going for training for at least 3 Saturdays each month since. With a local trainer and help from America we have been able to train Peanut to alert us or my daughter when her sugar level falls or rises too high. This involved teaching Peanut what scent we want him to take notice of. We had to collect scent samples from my daughter in the form of spit when she was out of range in order to teach Peanut that the scent is important.
This means that when her sugar level goes below 4 or higher than 9 he either shows her, or us by spinning around in a circle. At home he tends to first bark at us to make sure he gets our attention before he starts spinning. When he spins we go and test my daughter and 90% of the time he is correct and her sugar levels are out of range. This is then when he gets a puppy party… He gets told he is the bees knees and gets meat, reserved only for when he alerts accurately. I’m sure in his head when he alerts sometimes, he looks at me and think “How can you not smell it? Look at me!! There’s something wrong with our girl… go look!!” He is often so persistent as if he realized the seriousness of his job. There have been times when he is sleeping in another room and he will get up and start alerting, showing me once again our girl needs my attention.
Does Peanut always get it right? No. Does he sometimes sleep or play when she is low or high and miss it? Yes, because he is just a dog, a dog we love and plays an important part in our family, but he is a living creature that fails. He is tired sometimes and sometimes just gets caught in the moment and that is OK. He is a safety net that we are blessed to have when there are problems with her sugar levels, but more importantly he is a great companion that licks her tears when she cries because that is his human… he loves her and that is priceless on so many levels.
When me and my friend did research and decided to start this journey, Peanut was never the goal though, Peanut was the start. Peanut was our test dummy to see if it is possible for us to train a dog but the bigger dream has always been to start a N.P.O. that functions largely like the guide dog association in South Africa. There is a huge need for diabetic alert dogs, seizure alert dogs and various medical alert dogs at an affordable price. Just an interesting fact: Guide dog association sell their dogs for R5 and that is the ultimate goal to make sure that people who could really benefit from medical alert dogs can afford it. People that can’t necessarily afford the best technology can have tools to safe guard the people they love or themselves.
That’s the big picture but it all started with Peanut, we had to find out if we could succeed in training a diabetic alert dog and we are still on the journey of making sure he is service dog trained. After Peanut started alerting frequently we registered #PawPanionPawPanion Service Dogs as an N.P.O. and the mission and vision is to be able to help people for a minimal cost. We also want to try and pave the way for service dogs in South Africa, so part of Peanut’s training has been networking and getting permission for Peanut to enter facilities and stores. This is a huge challenge in South Africa as it is still a new concept so PawPanion will work on changing the law so that people who need the assistance of service dogs will have a legal foot to stand on.
When we started to train Peanut I knew nothing about training dogs. I often laugh and say training dogs consists of bribery and corruption. There has been so many tears, laughter and new friendships made on this journey. I believe there will be many more. This journey has been amazing so far, but it is honestly just the beginning. I definitely felt the pressure with training Peanut because it was never just about Peanut and never will be.
We are daily amazed at what Peanut is doing, there were times we thought he wasn’t going to be able to do it, but with wisdom from God we are finally here. We have recently just gotten our first PawPanion puppy, Aron, a black Labrador. We are super excited and overwhelmed because the need is so huge, but grateful to be where we are.