CONCORD, Calif. — When the Ruefenachts were called to be stake missionaries in the LDS Cambodian Branch in Oakland, the stake president said, "I'm calling you, your wife and your dog to this work."
He realized Les Ruefenacht and his wife rarely make a move without a trained guide dog by their sides.
"Every Sunday in at least two California wards, the people are used to seeing two dogs in the meetings," Ruefenacht said. "Ours and those of our clients."
That's because the Ruefenacht family has been in the business of fostering and training guide dogs for the blind for 12 years and now have added training dogs for diabetics to their life.
"I had no idea that at this age I'd be doing this," said Ruefenacht, who turns 70 this year.
The Ruefenachts believe they are the only ones in the United States training dogs to alert their owners when their blood sugar levels drop to dangerous levels. So they're busy with people from all over, including Japan, England, Australia and New Zealand, who want a dog or to see how they're trained.
D4D (Dogs4Diabetics) teaches dogs that for one reason or another don't finish qualifying as seeing-eye dogs to pick up the scent emitted when a diabetic's blood sugar falls below 50.
They recognize the scent of the ketones and alert their owners by barking, or in some cases, fetching others to help.
If a diabetic's blood sugar falls too low, the diabetic can slip into a hypoglycemic coma and die if they aren't helped promptly.
For young children and even for teenagers and adults, they often don't notice their condition even if they are wearing a continuous blood-sugar monitor.
"We had one dog sitting in the bleachers while his owner, a young girl, was swimming. He alerted the parents that she was in trouble even though he was quite a distance away and she was in the water," Ruefenacht said. "We have a family (the Schumakers of the Petaluma California Ward) who have three diabetic children. Their dog Lawton sleeps in the hallway and can alert the parents if any one of them is in trouble."
"He is my miracle, my back-up, my peace of mind," Meri Schumacher said of Lawton. "We are proud to be a family worthy of Lawton's love."
"Children's blood sugar changes more rapidly than adults so most of our dogs go to college-age and younger children," Ruefenacht said.
The dogs are "repurposed" with sweat towels donated from the Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Medical Center. It takes several months to train them to recognize the ketones using the towels. Then the dogs must be trained to nudge the owners, put their front paws on them if necessary or go for help.
The Ruefenachts got into the business of training dogs for diabetics after their oldest son had a scare on a business trip to New York. He had eaten a chocolate doughnut, adjusted his insulin accordingly but apparently misjudged what he needed. Fortunately, he had Benton, a guide dog in training, with him.
"He was headed into a hypoglycemic coma when the dog started nudging him," his father said. "Without the dog, he could've died."
The Ruefenachts realized dogs could be trained to help people suffering from hypoglycemia, an unavoidable, acute and unpredictable side effect of insulin-dependence.
Some colleagues, including a doctor and a nurse who work at Kaiser, originally scoffed at the idea. They now have dogs themselves.
The Ruefenachts don't charge people for the D4D animals, but they do screen those who get their dogs.
So far, they've placed about 70 dogs.
Potential owners must like dogs, need them and be willing to take the time to learn to work with them and care for them.
The cost of training and keeping the dogs is paid through private donations.
For information on applying for a dog or on donating, see the Web site: www.Dogs4Diabetics.com.
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