Wonder DogOctober 21, 2017
Story by Leann Burke
Photos by Brittney Lohmiller
When Emily Correll found out Diabetic Alert Dogs of America chose her to receive one of their pups, she cried.
At that time, the Celestine teen was 14 years old and had been trying for a year to get one of several diabetic alert dog training programs to accept her. Getting the phone call from Las Vegas-based Diabetic Alert Dogs of America represented a turning point in her life.
Emily lives with Type I diabetes, a pancreas affliction with no cure. With the disease, her blood sugar fluctuates across a wide range from as low as 10 mg/dL to as high as 600 mg/dL, well outside the normal range of 70 to 150 mg/dL. Since being diagnosed at age 6, she’s slipped into diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) four times. DKA is a diabetic coma where her blood sugar is too high for too long, and her body doesn’t have enough sugar — the body’s main energy source — to operate.
The most recent coma, when Emily was 13, led to the pursuit of a diabetic alert dog.
Emily was in her mother’s bathroom when she slipped into the coma. Christine, one her sisters, threw her over her shoulder and carried her to the car and eventually into Memorial Hospital and Health Care Center where Emily spent the next couple days fading in and out.
Emily’s mother, Shawn, tears up talking about that experience. She thought her youngest daughter was going to die. If Emily goes into DKA again, she might.
“My doctor told me if I go in again there’s almost 100 percent chance that I’m not coming out of it,” said Emily, who’s now 16.
After that, Emily became depressed, and Shawn said she didn’t take as good care of herself. It seemed like she was giving up.
“She was like, ‘I don’t know why God let this happen to me,’” Shawn recalled. “She was scaring us a lot.”
Enter Koda, an 18-month-old English Labrador retriever named for the little bear in Disney’s “Brother Bear” who’s trained to smell if Emily’s blood sugar is too high, too low or just right, and alert her by touching her with his paw. If she ignores him, he’ll jump on her, and if she continues to do nothing, he’ll go find a friend or family member to tell. He’s trained to not stop alerting Emily or someone else until Emily’s blood sugar is back at a healthy level.
The behavior is called trained disobedience, and it garners a lot of critical looks in public from passersby. The behavior prompted one stranger to tell Emily that Koda wasn’t well-trained. The man, Emily recalled, informed her that when he tells his dogs to do something, they do it. Emily explained that Koda isn’t like a pet. He’s not trained to be obedient, but rather to alert her when something is wrong. Sometimes that involves ignoring commands. The man was dubious, but he let the conversation go.
Despite the high-tech medical equipment Emily has to monitor her blood sugar, Koda is the most effective alert system. His nose can alert Emily to blood sugar fluctuations half an hour before her meter registers an issue, and 45 minutes before the sensor on the meter does anything. For Emily, that hour could be the difference between life and death.
When Koda alerts Emily, she has to check her blood sugar to see if it’s high or low. If it’s high, she has to take insulin; if it’s low, she has to eat something. Emily carries Smarties, glucose tabs and insulin with her at all times so she can address her blood sugar when she needs to.
In the five months since Koda joined the Correll family, he’s become Emily’s shadow, booting Emily’s Jack Russell terrier, Peaches, out of the “top dog” spot and causing a competition between the two for Emily’s attention. The two don’t fight, but there’s definitely some jealousy between them, Emily said. The family’s 16-year-old, three-legged black lab-shepherd mix, Cookie, could care less as long as the competition doesn’t interrupt her naps.
Koda took to Emily almost immediately. The two never met before the trainer dropped Koda off at the Corrells’ home, but Koda walked right up to Emily and started following her around, much to the trainer’s surprise. Usually the dogs are nervous at drop-off. Emily figures Koda went right to her because he already knew her scent. The Corrells sent the trainers in Las Vegas saliva samples from when Emily’s blood sugar was low, high and normal for use during Koda’s six-month training.
Koda was an excellent student. Six months is the shortest amount of time a dog can take to complete the training. Usually the process takes eight to 12 months.
“He’s one of the top five dogs they’ve ever trained,” Emily said.
The training came at a cost. Since Koda needed to be able to recognize both high and low blood sugar — the most complex and expensive training for a diabetic alert dog — the Corrells also had to raise $15,000 to get Koda, a feat they say wouldn’t have been accomplished without the community support and fundraising efforts. The family set up a GoFundMe page that garnered a lot of attention, and several community groups held fundraisers, including Kimball Electronics where Emily’s dad, Lee, works. Thanks to the community, it was less than a year between when Emily chose Koda from pictures of available dogs and when he arrived to Celestine in May.
The Correll’s home isn’t the only place Koda has made himself at home. He’s equally comfortable with Emily at Northeast Dubois High School where Emily attends classes as a junior and at the bowling alley at Eastown Recreation Center when Emily has bowling practice. Regardless of where they are, Koda isn’t afraid to interrupt whatever Emily’s doing. During one September bowling practice, he kept pawing at Emily while she tried to figure out a handshake with Addie Prok, one of her friends.
“It’s really cool to know she has someone looking out for her,” Addie said of Koda.
He’s also a big hit at Redemption Christian Church in Jasper. During youth group, Emily’s peers surround Koda, petting him with Emily’s permission. Koda wears a vest identifying him as a service dog and warning people not to pet him, but Emily will sometimes give people permission to pet him if she knows her blood sugar is in check. If you’re a friend, you’re more likely to get the go-ahead.
Koda soaks up the attention.
One Wednesday in September, he ate his fill of McDonald’s fries as the kids tried to get him to catch them off his nose. Rather than toss them in the air for a catch, Koda took the sensible route of letting them slide off his nose so he could pick them up off the floor.
Addie and Patience Robinson, Emily’s cousin, said it’s a little bit different hanging out with Emily now because other people are almost always around because of Koda, but other than that nothing’s changed in the teens’ friendship.
Koda’s presence allows Emily to participate in activities she otherwise couldn’t. Sports, for example, were a challenge before Koda. She tried swimming, but just swimming the warm up left her blood sugar too low to participate in the meets. She tried cheerleading, but had to stop too often to check her blood sugar. This year, Emily joined Northeast Dubois High School’s dance team. Koda can monitor her blood sugar during practices and performances so Emily doesn’t have to worry about it as much.
As she and Koda become more in tune and Emily’s blood sugar levels become even better controlled, she may even be able to drive. Before Koda, driving wouldn’t have been an option. Driving with blood sugar as high as Emily’s sometimes gets is similar to driving drunk, making her a danger to herself and others on the road. With Koda, the hope is that her blood sugar levels eventually won’t go that high anymore.
“It’s so important for her,” Shawn said. “We want to be able to send her to do things, but it’s hard.”
For the next nine years, Koda will be there to make life a little bit easier for Emily and the people who care about her. Diabetic alert dogs retire around age 10 to become pets, but Emily already has a plan for when Koda’s retirement comes. She’s planning to become a diabetic alert dog trainer. Emily is trying her hand at training diabetic alert dogs by trying to teach Koda to alert her in a different way for high and low blood sugar. That’s not going so well, but he will bring her the supplies she needs to check her blood sugar now. And every morning he brings her his vest and drops it in her lap to have it put on.
“I guess it’s a good sign,” Emily said. “He’s growing up. Maturing.”
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