Ija is a trained service dog (diabetic alert dog) who signals her owner when blood glucose levels are changing and then alerts her as to whether the levels are rising or falling so appropriate action can be taken. Ija has made it possible for teacher Lisa Loftis to live more easily with type 1 diabetes.
“Before Ija, my glucose levels would sometimes change dramatically enough that I would have to pull out of a classroom for 15 minutes or so until the insulin took effect,” says Lisa Loftis, who teaches language arts in a high school in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “Clearly this was not permitting me to be the teacher I needed to be.”
After a good deal of research, Lisa Loftis decided that a diabetes alert dog would make her life safer and easier.
Ija was obtained from Assistance Dogs of the West, where she was trained by Sue Barnes, who is co-author of a book on training diabetes alert dogs. This article is to recognize the importance of service animals in our society and is part of International Assistance Dog Week (August 3-9).
The Onset of Diabetes
Unlike most with this disease, Lisa Loftis’s symptoms appeared later in life. In her mid-40s, she found herself in an emergency room, and the diagnosis did not take long. Her blood sugar was very high, but even doctors were quite surprised to see a full-blown case is Type 1 diabetes present in someone her age with no history of diabetes.
Perhaps because she was older, Loftis immediately began doing research. She knew little about what causes glucose variations (primarily diet, exercise, and stress) and why her body was no longer able to produce insulin.
“The doctor sent me home with syringes and vials and I monitored my diabetes with finger pricks throughout the day….it was all very cumbersome for someone just learning to manage the disease.”
She researched by talking to other patients and attended conferences. Her doctor was very open to some of the new ideas she brought in with her.
“With my daughter leaving for college, I began thinking that a diabetic alert dog would make it safer to live alone, Loftis says. “But I didn’t know how to get one until I was at a conference where I learned about that Assistance Dogs of the West.”
From Idea to Diabetic Alert Dog
Ultimately it took about 18 months for Lisa to apply for and get a dog trained to help her. The cost of training a dog at this school is currently stated as $15,000; clients are expected to pay about one-third of the cost, though assistance is available.
Before embarking on her effort, she checked with her school to be certain a service dog could be accommodated. As a result, the school community got behind the effort. The Key Club had a bake sale and as friends heard about the project, she received donations.
“It was incredibly wonderful to have this support,” says Loftis.
How a Diabetic Alert Dog Works
Dogs smell a change in a person’s molecular makeup, so diabetic alert dogs are trained to warn one’s owner of alterations in the body’s blood sugar level. Ija nudges Lisa when she detects a change. When Lisa makes eye contact with Ija, Ija sits if the glucose level is going up. She lies down if the level is falling.
“Ija is very persistent,” says Loftis. “Sometimes I don’t respond to her immediately because I’m busy with a student but she keeps nudging me and will even let out a short bark if I wait too long.”
Loftis wears a continuous glucose monitor at all times (and it has to be calibrated to a blood sample twice daily), so she has been able to compare what Ija thinks with the science behind what is going on in her body: “Ija is ahead of the monitor by about 15-20 minutes which makes all the difference in the world. If my levels are low, I know to grab a juice box so I can just keep going.” (A glucose monitor works with a small sensor placed under the skin and it transmits readings via radio frequency to a display monitor.)
“The variations can be so extreme that at times. If I had waited for the monitor, I would have to pull out of the classroom and sit down for ten minutes or so in order to recover before going on. This way I can make the adjustment in stride,” says Loftis.
Diabetic Alert Dog in the Classroom
Before Ija arrived, there was a change in principals, but Loftis says the school remained supportive: “There was a lot of paperwork they are required to have on file, but I had it all, and there have been no problems.
“Our school is unusual in that the layout is open and it’s the teachers who move around, so I’m very active during the day, and this can affect insulin levels,” says Loftis.
The students enjoy having Ija at school, and their only disappointment is that they are not permitted to pet her. “I tell them all that when they graduate they will have petting privileges, and some students actually do come back to visit Ija and pet her.”
After two years with Ija accompanying her, the school has had no complaints about students with allergies, but Loftis notes that Ija is bathed and groomed regularly and brushed often to minimize dander, which is what causes an allergic reaction.
Ija, now 4, goes everywhere with Loftis. At school her leash is
attached to Loftis’ belt loop so that Loftis’ hands are free.
“Ija gets a lot of exercise because my job is so active,” says Loftis. “At the end of the day, another teacher or I will throw tennis balls for her for a bit, but she is always on duty. If my insulin changes, she still stops to tell me. And honestly, at the end of the day she is perfectly happy to go home. She’ll be fed, nap on the sofa a bit, and may play with the cat if she feels like it.
“We knew she would need time off, so the decision was made that nights were her own to get a good night’s sleep. I rely on the continuous glucose monitor then. Blood sugar doesn’t tend to alter that much then, and the CGM is adequate for that time.
“I also sometimes give her a marrow bone, and then, too, she gets to be off duty to thoroughly enjoy the bone.”
All in all, Lisa Loftis and Ija seem very content with their partnership.
To check on Ija, visit her facebook page.