Our Valley: Dr. Dog Will See You Now
Daily News-Record - 5/31/2018
SHENANDOAH - A few years ago, Morgan Raynes no longer knew when something was wrong.
The 19-year-old Shenandoah resident has Type I diabetes and doesn't notice changes in her blood sugar.
"I stopped feeling symptoms and it would lead to really low lows and really high highs that I just couldn't sense," she said.
Without being aware of the changes, Morgan would frequently be taken to the hospital when her levels were dangerous.
Her mother, Amy, quickly sought help. That's where 5-year-old Vixen comes in. She's an American lab and a diabetes alert service dog.
The dog has since saved Morgan's life at least four times and kept her out of the hospital countless times.
Service dogs like Vixen are used to assist in the management of certain diseases or disabilities.
Charlottesville-based Service Dogs of Virginia trains and provides dogs to help with autism, diabetes, physical disabilities and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Sally Day, the organization's director of development, said the dogs are trained for up to two years and provided at little cost to applicants. The nonprofit places between nine and 12 dogs throughout the state each year.
Applicants are charged a $50 to request a dog. If they are selected, the applicant is charged $1,000 for "transfer camp," Day said, which covers two weeks of training and a supply kit. The organization doesn't pass on the cost to train the dogs, Day said, because people who need the animals already have other bills to pay.
The camp teaches people how to travel in public with the canine and learn its cues.
"The dog has learned everything," she said, "but the client has not."
At the end of training, the owner must take a public access test. Within the next year, they take the test twice and then once each subsequent year. The testing allows the organization to make sure the owner is treating the dog correctly.
The exam also makes sure the canine is behaving because, despite extensive training, it's still a dog.
"We call them toddlers with superpowers," Day said.
Each dog has a different mission, depending on the service it provides.
Diabetes alert dogs serve people who are Type I diabetic and hypoglycemic unaware, meaning they don't notice when their blood sugar level is dropping.
To a dog, blood with high or normal sugar levels smells sweet, while the low sugar blood smells bitter, Morgan Raynes said.
"She'll put her paw on my knee and that'll tell me that something's wrong and I need to go ahead and check," she said.
Amy Raynes said the dog has helped the family numerous times. For example, sometimes the family would think Morgan's blood sugar was rising, but Vixen alerted that it was going down.
"We thought we should have done one thing and the dog was telling us something else to do," Amy Raynes said. "And you would trust the dog."
There's two types of autism service dogs, Day said.
For autistic children, one of the dog's primary jobs is to keep them from running away when they reach elementary school age. Day said the dogs can be tethered to the child making it harder to run away.
"When [children] get to be 4 and 5, if they [run away] because of stress, you no longer feel that you can keep them safe in public." Day said. "The goal is, over time, that you can back off from the tethering because as the relationship develops between the dog and the child, it will help the child when it's anxious and reduce that."
Once the child develops a relationship with the dog, Day said, they are more likely to use the dog for a hug when they're feeling anxious. The dogs also can let the child know if it's engaged in repetitive behavior.
If the canine can intercept the child's behavior, it can also help their relationship with their parents.
"The stress between the parent and the child is greatly decreased because the dog is the one saying, 'Hey, let's redirect,'" Day said.
The second type of autism service dog helps young adults transitioning into a job or college.
Those canines are similar to PTSD service dogs, Day said.
The hounds are trained to recognize certain body positions that show anxiety and lay their hand or paw on the person to provide comfort.
"These are very subtle things that dogs can do, but it makes a huge difference because it's like holding up a mirror to a person," Day said. "If you've got PTSD or you're on the spectrum, you're not necessarily aware of your body and what it can show for our mental state."
Physical Disabilities, PTSD
Physical assistance dogs primarily help people confined to a wheelchair, Day said. The canines act as "hands" and retrieve objects and open doors.
Some people confined to a wheelchair require constant assistance or aides, Day said, and the dogs can provide a small sense of independence.
"What the dogs can provide is some personal alone time where they don't have to have an aide all the time," she said.
Service Dogs of Virginia also provides canines for veterans or active-duty military who have been diagnosed with PTSD.
The dogs can help get people out of the house and moving more than if they were isolated at home, Day said.
She said the dogs' training focuses on alerting their owner to an episode of stress or anxiety.
For example, if someone decides to go to a grocery store and the sounds and crowd becomes too much to handle, the dog will know to get between their legs and sit down. Day said the move allows the owner to focus on the dog and is subtle enough not to draw attention.
"To the general public it's not embarrassing," she said.
Day said Service Dogs of Virginia conducts informational sessions to combat "tons of misinformation out there" about the animals.
A common misconception is the difference between a service dog, emotional support animal and therapy animal.
The Americans With Disabilities Act defines service animals as a dog that helps anyone with a disability, "including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability."
The act says the animals must provide a service directly related to the disability, such as a seeing-eye dog for people who are blind, helping people with epilepsy or alerting people with allergies.
The law specifically excludes all other types of animals, saying that "emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship do not constitute work or tasks" related to a service.
Sometimes, public interactions are the problem.
"The main problem was the public isn't educated with how to act on service dogs," Morgan Raynes said. "So there were kids grabbing her tail and pulling on her vest.
"It became harder for me to take her places because people were scaring her."
Although the vests say don't pet the dog and that the animal is working, people can sometimes ignore it when they see a cute dog.
"What people don't realize is that she does look like a dog, a friendly puppy, but if you distract a service dog, that could cost me a trip to the hospital or that could cost me my life," Morgan Raynes said. "Because once she's distracted from me, she doesn't alert like she should."
No matter the need, the dogs are another way to manage disabilities or disease.
"It's just another tool," Amy Raynes said. "When you have a chronic disease, you have a toolkit that you use. You have your meter, you have your doctor, you have education. And then we got a service dog as just another tool."