Tamera Mason deals with four competing autoimmune diseases everyday, and her service dog Irene helps her stay on top of things.
“She is a diabetic and Addison trained dog,” Mason said.
Addison’s Disease is a disorder in which the body doesn’t produce enough hormones. It can be life threatening.
“She has kept me safe,” Mason said. “And instead of having an Addison crisis about every six weeks, now in a year and a half I’ve only have two ICU visits. Both of which she predicted and was able to alert me for.”
Dogs can learn to “alert” their owners when they smell a certain trigger, like low blood sugar, if properly trained. Irene bumps Mason’s leg.
“Irene is 20 to 30 minutes ahead of when the glucose monitor said I was in trouble,” Mason said.
Given Mason’s condition and her full time job at an emergency department, it can make all the difference.
“I have been very blessed with a dog who truly has superpowers,” Mason said.
She got Irene from a nonprofit called Service Dogs of Virginia. They train dogs with different skills based on the future owner’s needs.
“We don’t train the dogs to smell the odor, they do that because they’re dogs and they have a nose. What we do is train them to tell us when they smell that odor,” Peggy Law, the founder of the organization, said.
Law calls them "toddlers with superpowers.
She saw the need for service dogs in her community, saying the demand grew enormously.
With that demand comes more businesses entering the industry, but not always for the right reasons. Service dog companies and trainers are not monitored or regulated by any government agency. Instead, a nonprofit coalition has formed in its place.
“We are really regarded as the global leaders of the industry for setting standards,” Chris Diefenthaler, the executive director of Assistance Dogs International (ADI), said.
ADI has come up with its own peer-review accreditation process to help combat fraud.
“It is a very thorough, comprehensive evaluation,” Diefenthaler said.
ADI had 273 member organizations worldwide in 2018. In that year, they helped place more than 7,700 service dogs, four percent were diabetic alert dogs. Irene was trained through an ADI-accredited facility.
“We have a reasonable sense of when I go to bed at night, being able to wake up,” Mason said.
Some aren’t so lucky.
“We found out he had skin issues which ended up being from autoimmune diseases from being overbred,” Michelle Ninstant said.
Ninstant was desperate to find ways to help her son who had just been diagnosed with diabetes, and heard how service dogs could help.
“My son, Zack Johnson, was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes back in 2012,” she explained. “He was very brittle, so no matter how much we gave him to carb him up and bring his sugars up he could drop 20, 30 seconds after that.”
She found a company selling service dogs, with a price tag of $20,000. After waiting nine months, she received Alan, a 13-week-old service dog who was supposed to come with basic training. Within days, Alan was shoeing troubling symptoms, and still had not learned the basics like “sit” or “stay”.
“While we’re trying to learn about diabetes in general and then add a service dog onto it, add my sons health issues onto it,” the mother explained. “He’s part of your family so you just don’t want to send him back.”
She said in the first year alone, vet bills totaled close to $10,000 as they figured out what was causing Alan’s skin and immunity problems.
Ninstant ended up training Alan herself with some help, and on multiple occasions Alan helped save Zack.
But six years later, you can still see Alan struggle with skin problems and itching.
“Alan’s part of our family,” Michelle said.
Service Dogs of Virginia keeps up with their clients every year.
“We want to make sure they’re doing all the things that they need to to make sure the dog is working well,” Law said.
While Law said a service dog isn’t the right solution for everyone, there are ways to make sure you are buying from a trustworthy organization.
“I think you have to ask a lot of questions,” she said.