The bond between a boy and his dog is a strong one, and so well-known there have been countless movies and books about it. What might make that bond even stronger, though, is the boy’s life-saving dependency on that dog.
Harley Frost, 11, recently welcomed into his home his new best friend, Rocky, a Labrador retriever trained to help Harley manage his Type 1 diabetes by detecting changes in the boy’s blood sugar. Bringing the diabetic alert dog home on Aug. 10 was the finish line of an 18-month journey for the Frost family. Through fundraising and personal savings, they were able to raise the $25,000 needed for a dog from Service Dogs by Warren Retriever.
“It’s been amazing,” Harley said of getting Rocky, just a day after the dog was officially his. “I feel safe and lucky.”
While at the Park at River Walk last week with his parents, sister Rylee, a trainer from SDWR and some friends in the diabetes community, Harley’s blood sugar started to drop. Before it got too severe, Rocky pawed at Harley to tell him something was wrong. The dog was restless and wouldn’t settle down until the boy’s blood was tested and corrected.
Diabetic alert dogs are able to detect two different scents produced when a person’s blood sugar is high or low.
“He has a very, very good nose,” said Erin Gray, a SDWR trainer who delivered Rocky from Virginia. Despite all the smells present in the park, Rocky could still detect the scent that told him Harley was low. “They can smell a teaspoon of sugar in an Olympic-size pool. That’s how strong their nose is.”
‘This dog is a lifesaver’
At the park, between working with Rocky and talking to a reporter and after his blood sugar had stabilized, Harley was playing with friends and taking advantage of being at a hotspot for “Pokemon Go,” celebrating the Pikachu he caught.
“If you see Harley, he looks like a normal 11-year-old boy,” his mother, Shannon, said. Diabetes “is an invisible disease. You never know who has it.”
Harley was diagnosed at 6 years old when the family lived in Pennsylvania. Harley had been sick and was unusually thirsty and tired. Shannon thought he might have mono, so the diabetes diagnosis came as a shock. Harley was hospitalized for six days with diabetic ketoacidosis, and the Frosts got a crash course in managing the disease.
In Pennsylvania, doctors wouldn’t clear Harley for an insulin pump, so he had to get shots every time he consumed carbs, his parents explained. Upon moving to Bakersfield for dad Brent’s job, Harley was given an insulin pump, which has made managing his diabetes easier. But, as the Frosts learned the hard way, technology is imperfect, even with new advancements.
“The pump has failed,” Shannon said. “Other times Harley had a low reserve (of insulin in the pump), and the pump didn’t have any to deliver.”
That’s why the Frosts decided to look into a diabetic alert dog for Harley. Dogs like Rocky are trained to assist in a number of ways. They can grab a juice box or meter, notify someone else of the problem if their human friend isn’t able to help themselves, and, with the help of a canine rescue phone, even call 911.
“It’s such a relief” finally having Rocky, Shannon said. “It gives us peace of mind to know there is always another set of eyes on him.”
Though the dog comes from a nonprofit, it still costs families a $25,000 pledge to SDWR to get the dog. The Frosts were able to raise about 25 percent of that cost through fundraisers like car shows, raffles and garage sales, said Brent Frost. Insurance did not cover Rocky.
Harley’s parents make sure to monitor everything their son eats as closely as they can so they can anticipate changes in blood sugar, but like many growing boys, Harley occasionally grabs a bite to eat on his own.
“Kids like to sneak food,” Shannon said. “We tell him he can have whatever he wants if he tells us. Sometimes he forgets.”
“They’re children, you can’t blame them,” Brent added. “With the dog, now if he sneaks food (in the middle of the night) there’s no harm because the dog can wake up somebody.”
Harley’s blood sugar can be affected by more than just his diet: the weather, activity and stress can also change it. But whatever the cause, Rocky will detect the change and won’t rest until Harley is out of danger.
“This dog is a lifesaver,” Shannon said. “In the middle of the night, if Harley drops, he can come and alert us.”
More families trying to get an alert dog
Rocky is the second diabetic alert dog from SDWR to be placed in Bakersfield. The first belongs to Patti Kasper, who works as the SDWR chapter manager for Bakersfield and Central California. She’s had her dog, Tzaylie, for almost four years and said the dog has saved her life 42 times.
“Not a day has gone by that she has not alerted me,” Kasper said. “Life gets busy and we get distracted (after realizing we’re high or low). You disconnect and not get a juice right away ... Dogs remind us to do what we need to do.”
Tzaylie is now almost halfway through her career, so Kasper has started fundraising for dog number two. In addition to Kasper, there are three local families currently raising money to get a SDWR diabetic alert dog of their own: the family of 9-year-old Elijah Lidgett, the family of single father Jeff Thompson and the family of 19-year-old Jacob Brown.
“These dogs give us our independence and confidence back,” Kasper said. “They allow us to engage (in life) more fully.”
Also trained through the Virginia-based SDWR are dogs to help people with seizures, autism and post-traumatic stress disorder. All dogs from SDWR are golden and Labrador retrievers. As puppies, their training focuses on socialization so they can learn how to behave in public. As they get older, the dogs are trained for whatever specialty their families need.
When dogs are given to the families, a trainer stays with them for four days to get the dog used to its person and new home. There is also some training involved for the people like Harley, so they know how to properly walk the dog and reinforce good behavior. Every three to four months for the first year or so, a trainer will return to check on the duo.
“These four days are their crash course with Rocky,” Gray said. “They’ve been doing awesome. Harley has to take this on and he is doing fantastic. It’s a lot of responsibility for an 11-year-old.”
Service dogs have a big responsibility too, and Gray urged the public not to bother one, no matter how cute. Unwanted petting, talking and kissy noises can distract a dog from their life-saving job.
With the diabetic alert training already done, the last part of Rocky’s training is getting to know his boy. Though he’s only been with them for a short time, it’s clear Rocky is already part of the family.
“He’s a great service dog and I want to give him all the treats,” Harley said.