Canine Heroes Help their Humans Tread with Care
story by CHERYL ROGERS
portraits by LUIS BETANCOURT
Eighteen-year-old Hailey McDaniel’s dog, Oliver, sure knows how to get his owner’s attention. The yellow labrador whines and paces until McDaniel asks if there’s a problem. Then he’ll tap her right or left hand.
McDaniel has Type 1 Diabetes, so it’s Oliver’s job to let her know when her blood sugar levels are too high or low. “If I’m stressed, if I have anxiety, if I’m sick— anything could throw off my blood sugars,” McDaniel explains.
As a service dog, Oliver has been trained to alert McDaniel when he smells something is amiss. “We let off different hormones [through body secretions] whenever our blood sugar spikes or they go too low,” says the Haines City High School senior.
A tap on her right-hand means the glucose is high; a tap on the left means it’s too low. “He’ll get mad at me if I don’t fix it fast enough,” says McDaniel, whose dog was trained by Tattle Tail Scent Dogs in Salt Lake City, Utah. “If he doesn’t physically see me check my blood sugar, he will get upset.”
Brenda Hosler acquired her white boxer, Precious Pearl, as a puppy. She was supposed to be a regular pet. But as a disabled Army veteran, who served in Desert Storm, Hosler really needed a service dog. Suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Military Sexual Trauma, Hosler was a shut-in. “I didn’t go out at all. I didn’t go in public and I didn’t drive,” she recalls.
About three years ago, Precious Pearl was successfully trained as a service dog through the Brooksville-based K9 Partners for Patriots. About nine weeks into the program, Hosler was able to drive herself to and from the two-and-a-half-hour sessions each week.
Precious Pearl, who weighs 64 pounds, also is capable of helping Hosler stand up after a fall. “I found freedom in a service dog. The rewards were multiplied mega times, and the work was so rewarding and so minimal. My freedom was worth every second,” says the 61-year-old. “My health has improved. I’m off 80 percent of the medications that I used to take.”
TYPES OF SERVICE DOGS
Service dogs can literally save— and change— people’s lives. In addition to seeing and hearing dogs, canines can be trained to alert their owners suffering from diabetes and seizures, and assist those suffering from autism, PTSD, and other physical disabilities. They have been shown to lower a person’s heart rate and blood pressure, regulate mood swings, and help with anxiety, panic attacks, and frustration, says Jason DeVito, owner of the Palm City-based Canines 4 Hope.
The dogs are trained for the specific needs of their owners, and they’re generally very devoted to them. For example, dogs are trained to lay across children with autism to mimic of the feeling of being swaddled, DeVito says. They also interrupt inappropriate or unsafe behavior.
When veterans and their dogs gather for a program, it’s likely none of the dogs will bark. “Dogs are focused on their vet. They’re almost oblivious to the presence of other dogs,” explains K9 Partners for Patriots’ Communications Director Gregg Laskoski. “They know they’re working […] They want to do what’s right and what’s expected.”
TRAINING AND BREEDS
Service dogs don’t need to be a German Shepherd or a Golden Retriever. “There’s a lot of misinformation when it comes to service dogs,” he says. “If you ever saw all the different dogs in this program, you’d be stunned.”
A vest is a sign that lets the dogs and the general public know the dog is working. Although they never forget what they’ve been trained to do, there is a significant difference in the dog’s behavior when the dog is wearing the vest— and when he or she is not.
“As soon as I strap his service vest on, he goes into full work mode: ‘I’m here for my person. I don’t care about anything else,’” says McDaniel, who was given her dog by Bryce’s Buddies Juvenile Diabetes Association, an area nonprofit. “As soon as you take the vest off, and he knows he’s not working anymore, he’s a 100 percent dog.”
Hosler agrees. “When they’re not working, they are your pet. They are your loved one,” she says. When they are working, “they become your partner, they become a medical apparatus for you,” she adds.
MORE ABOUT TRAINING
The training a service dog receives is far different than simple obedience training. At K9 Partners for Patriots, dogs from the West Central Florida area undergo a 19-week training program with their masters. All vets are welcome. “When they join this program, they actually start training a dog that qualifies to be a service dog, right from day one,” Laskoski says.
Partners for Patriots, a nonprofit founded and run by Mary Peter, works with veterans suffering from traumatic brain injury, PTSD, and military sexual trauma. “It doesn’t cost them a dime,” Laskoski says.
Funded through federal grants and private donations, the organization looks for abandoned or abused dogs they can rescue. “Many of the dogs are rescued from kill shelters. We like to tell people we saved not one life, but two,” Laskoski says.
While the organization trains dogs only for three adrenaline-related conditions, one dog named Shasta somehow knows to alert her owner when his blood sugar is high. “When my blood sugar runs high, this dog comes and licks my hand,” he adds.
STEPPING OUT INTO THE WORLD
DeVito’s for-profit business works with a broader range of clientele. It trains alert dogs for diabetes and seizures, as well as dogs to assist people with autism, stability issues, PTSD, and psychiatric conditions.
They encourage patients to raise funds to buy dogs that cost thousands of dollars. That way they avoid a lengthy wait at a nonprofit for a dog— and maintain more control over the type of dog they receive. “How do you choose who is more deserving of getting a dog?” he asks. “You can’t give a dog to everybody, right? We chose not to go that route.”
Training is accomplished in a week or two. “It changes people’s lives. It gives them the confidence to become more independent, recapture some of the things they’ve lost because of their medical disability,” he says.
Hosler is a good example of how a service dog can change a life. “I’m no longer sitting in a room in the dark. I’m out in the open and back in the world— and it’s because I went to some training that said ‘You don’t need to sit in the dark. Here’s a dog that will help you step out in the world,’” she says. “That’s exactly what she’s done.”
Hosler used to use a walker because of a balance issue. “I don’t need a walker [anymore] because Pearl is my balance person. I’ve learned to walk safely,” she says.
For McDaniel, who also uses a continuous glucose monitor, Oliver offers peace of mind as she prepares for college— and the possibility of living on her own. Her plan is to become a diabetes educator, essentially a nurse who specializes in endocrinology.
Oliver is trained to alert her to an imbalance, even when she’s sleeping. “I might live on campus,” she says. “Now that I have Oliver, I feel more confident.”