updated 11/02/2010 AT 5:30 PM ET
•originally published 11/03/2010 AT 1:00 PM ET
Like many 13-year-olds, Ashley Bogdan loves to be social. She hangs out with her girlfriends, meanders through her local mall and relishes taking a dip in the pool any chance she gets. But this California girl is not like most middle-schoolers in one respect: Ashley is diabetic and must test her blood-glucose levels multiple times a day to prevent them from becoming dangerously low.
“It’s such an awful disease, and it turned our life upside down,” Ashley’s mom, Stacey Bogdan, tells PEOPLEPets.com. “This disease really hit her hard.”
Diagnosed with type 1/insulin-dependent diabetes when she was just 10 years old, Ashley struggled to maintain stable sugar levels. During her stay in the hospital the Bogdans learned about Dogs4Diabetics (D4D), a Northern California-based nonprofit organization that trains and places assistance dogs with diabetics free of charge. At the time, Ashley was too young to receive a dog; applicants must be at least 12 years old. But earlier this year, the family’s prayers were answered when they went through the extensive application and training process – and were paired with a 2-year-old Labrador named Bria.
Although the process typically takes up to a year, the Bogdans were able to bring Bria home at the end of March. After paperwork is submitted, potential owners are evaluated and placed into an orientation group with dogs who may fit into their particular lifestyle. Within a few days, applicants are paired with their service dog and undertake a two-week training period. Sessions are for the patient and the pet only, in order to develop and nurture the bond between the two.
“You have to put [the effort] in,” Stacey Bogdan says. “But it is so worth it.”
What makes this program unique is its commitment to harnessing a canine’s heightened sense of smell, teaching the dogs to identify when a diabetic’s blood level begins to fall into the danger zone. “It’s scent training, very similar to bomb training [and] narcotic training,” explains Breanne Harris, assistant program director for Dogs4Diabetics. “What we’re teaching them is that the smell [of] low blood sugar is the best thing in the world, and that good things happen when they smell it.”
When a dog recognizes the low-sugar scent and informs its owner, the pup is rewarded with a treat. While there are a number of different ways a dog can signal this, ranging from nudging to noise devices, the primary technique is with a bringsal – a brightly colored nylon cloth that is attached to the dog’s collar. When Bria senses that Ashley’s levels are “going low” (a term for a drop in blood sugar) she picks up the bringsal – which tells Ashley that she needs to check her blood sugar. This technique is the most popular because it’s not a traditional animal behavior.
While the Bogdans are still adjusting to life with a puppy helper, they’ve found a sense of relief and comfort in knowing that Bria is looking out for their daughter. And Ashley – who has devoted herself to caring for Bria, even getting up early on Saturdays to take the dog on her morning walk – has also found a new best friend.
“The responsibility that she has shown for this was more than I ever [expected],” Bogdan says. “She does it just because she loves that dog so much.”
Founded in 2004, Dogs4Diabetics has placed 85 dogs with diabetics and is currently serving California, Oregon and Washington State. The dogs are received from Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, Calif. The cost of training each animal is approximately $25,000 and is paid for through private and corporate donations. Through increased awareness and fundraising, Dogs4Diabetics hopes to further develop its program and expand its services nationwide.
“We founded the organization for the dogs and the training, and to help people in their daily lives,” says Harris, who is also a diabetic with a Dogs4Diabetics dog of her own. “It’s an organization that is literally changing people’s lives today.”
Adds Bogdan, “If [Bria] saves [Ashley’s] life once, it’s worth it. You can never have enough peace of mind when you have a diabetic child.”
Read more about dogs who assist children on PEOPLEPets.com:
Iditarod Dog Inspires Autistic Boy in Alaska
Two Little Miracles: 6-Year-Old Survives with Help of Fighter Puppy