Like most young men his age, 20-year-old Reb Boyd doesn’t go anywhere without his cell phone and keys. But unlike his peers, Reb, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when he was 10, always grabs one more thing before heading out: the leash of his 3-year-old English Labrador retriever, Lilly. That’s because Lilly is a Diabetic Alert Dog who was trained to use her keen sense of smell to monitor Reb’s blood sugar level and let him know if it’s heading out of the normal range. “It’s crazy to think that a dog can do that,” says Reb. “But she can.”
The Boyds’ odyssey began on March 30, 2000, when Reb’s older sister, Mallory, was diagnosed with Juvenile, or Type 1, diabetes at the age of 9. Two years later, when Reb began to display similar symptoms like weight loss and chronic thirst, their parents, Richard and Stacy, wasted no time getting Reb tested. “Because of Mallory, we knew immediately what was wrong,” Stacy recalls.
Incurable but manageable, Type 1 diabetes is a condition in which the body doesn’t produce enough insulin, the hormone necessary to convert the foods eaten into sugar, which is then used by the body as energy. Regular injections of insulin are meant to keep blood sugar levels steady, but they’re not always perfect: sugar quickly can dip to unhealthy levels and lead to seizures, coma or worse. Unchecked high levels of sugar can damage nerves and cause blindness and other issues.
For Reb, whose blood sugar tended to bottom out at night while he was asleep and cause life-threatening seizures, nights became anything but restful as Richard and Stacy set an alarm so they could check his blood sugar throughout the night. “Reb will sleep through the early signs of a low, which is incredibly dangerous,” explains Stacy. “There were times when he’d be fine at midnight, but having a seizure two hours later. We began to wonder how he would go off to college and have a normal life.”
It was Mallory’s pediatric endocrinologist, Dr. Malaka Jackson, who came up with the solution. She had heard about dogs trained to pick up the scent of high or low blood sugar and let their owners know if a problem was brewing. Since Mallory was able to help herself when she felt her blood sugar levels changing, they didn’t look into getting one then. But Reb’s lows often occurred when he couldn’t monitor himself, so Mallory reminded her parents about the dogs.
After several false starts and bad experiences, the Boyds found Rachel Thornton, an Alabama mother of a Type 1 diabetic child who had her own experience obtaining and training a Diabetic Alert Dog for her daughter Abi to use to help other families. Rachel put the Boyds in touch with Cathy and Mike Stewart at Wildrose Kennels in Oxford, Miss. A top breeder and trainer of English Labs for hunting, Mike had recently started a foundation to offer trained Diabetes Alert Dogs to individuals with Type 1 diabetes. And thus, Lilly came into Reb’s life.
Only four months old when she arrived in Columbia, little Lilly was not just an adorable caramel-colored ball of fur. Thanks to the Thorntons’ older daughter Lydia, who had started basic obedience training when Lilly was just a tiny puppy, she was already primed for her job. “She could heel beautifully at just 4 months old,” recalls Stacy. “Lydia did an amazing job.”
Working with Teoti Anderson, a local trainer, Reb continued Lilly’s education in the basics until they were second nature. “Service dogs need to be confident and well-behaved in any situation,” says Teoti. “We had to get Lilly ready for her next stage of training.” That next stage, scent training, was an intensive, year-long process involving in-home sessions with a scent-training specialist from Richmond, Va., and a series of workshops at Wildrose. “Whether it’s a duck, drugs or a person, it’s all about teaching the dog to alert on a specific scent,” says Mike Stewart. “We use the same principles as gun dog training, only they hunt blood sugar variations instead of ducks. It makes no difference to them. Whatever you imprint, they can find. It’s a great feeling to train a dog that can save a life.”
To teach Lilly what she’d be looking for, the Boyds soaked pads with Reb’s saliva when he was having high and low blood sugar attacks. Once she’d imprinted the scent, the training team taught her that her job was to find it by hiding the pads and praising her when she found them. “It’s totally positive training,” says Stacy Boyd. “Every time she alerts on the right thing, you basically go crazy and throw a party for her. It gets her super excited to do it again. She’s so good that she alerted on Reb at the first workshop.” Reb was amazed by the process. “When it clicked, it was amazing to watch her,” he says.
Once she was trained, Lilly went everywhere with Reb, including school, family vacations and airplanes, where she curls up under Reb’s feet. “She’s so good, people don’t even realize she’s there,” says Stacy. But Reb knows. Lilly alerts him to a potential blood sugar problem about once a week.
In the fall of 2010, Lilly was with Reb when he left Columbia for Furman University. Although she’s not with him every minute, she does accompany him to class, where she has alerted not just on Reb, but once on a professor and once on a classmate. “She would not leave the boy alone,” says Stacy. “He finally noticed her. It turned out he was diabetic and was having low blood sugar. Lilly let him know before he had any idea.”
For Reb, the experience has been all positive. “It was hard work training her, but it has really paid off,” he says. “It’s been life-changing.”
Photo Courtesy of Richard Boyd