- Cullman, Alabama


September 2, 2012

‘Alert Dog’ gives boy early warning of diabetes issues

There is something heartwarming about a boy and his dog. From Timmy and Lassie, to Travis and Ol’ Yeller, or the modern day Marley and Me, penned by John Grogan, dogs and boys just seem to go together like milk and cookies.

That’s why, when you spot a little Cold Springs boy (who bares an uncanny resemblance to Dennis the Menace) with his yellow lab, you just smile for no reason other than that they look so happy together.  

But their story goes much deeper than just that of a boy with a pet. Nash is an “alert dog.” He is highly trained to be of service to Cody Bales, who has Type I Diabetes.

Eight-year-old Cody’s diabetes was so severe (referred to as “brittle” meaning that it is difficult to control) that his family had to set an alarm clock every two hours, day and night, to check his blood sugar levels.

Dr. Letief, Cody’s endocrinologist at Children’s Hospital in Birmingham, referred the Bales to a trainer who teaches dogs to bark when a diabetic’s sugar rises or falls below certain levels.

That was almost two years ago.

Cody would wear new T-shirts, laundered once without detergent, then slept in when Cody's sugar level was low to infuse them with the scent of a level which was out of range. Afterward, they were mailed to Nash’s trainer in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Nash started his scent training at six weeks of age. At four months, he was presented with his first white T-shirt. One of a litter of three pups, Nash seemed to zone in on Cody’s scent more quickly than the others. He slept with the little shirts, sent often by Cody’s parents, for the next year-and-a-half.

Nash went through rigorous months of scent training before going through intense obedience training for eighteen months. That might sound like a long time, but his training had to be absolutely accurate. The trainer would frequently slip a T-shirt into her purse and bring it out in crowded shopping malls or sporting events to have Nash find it. At night, she would slip a shirt into the bed with the puppy in order to wake him with the scent of a sugar “low”.

It takes a very special dog to be a Diabetic Alert Dog (DAD).

Alert dogs are not delivered to their new owners until they have been through extensive proofing specifically designed to ensure their success. These are “forever” dogs. Nash will be with Cody 24/7, someday even going to college with him.

 According to their website, desensitization and socialization is critical for pups, as they need to fluently perform their duties with the distractions of everyday life.

The trainers try to expose the dogs to every situation that they might encounter.

Finally, after two years of waiting, the big day arrived. Nash was hand delivered by his trainer, Janalee. She stayed for a couple of days to “train” Cody and his family, teaching them what Nash needed them to know about him, as well as what he could do for them.

It was love at first sight. The moment Nash got out of the van he went immediately to Cody, recognizing his scent from sleeping with Cody’s shirts for almost all of his life.

The whole family, Cody's dad, Chris Bales, mom, Stephanie and brother, Cole, were on hand for Nash's arrival. Cody was thrilled to finally have his dog, and says that he feels more secure, knowing that Nash is on the job.

That was only three weeks ago. Since then, they have become inseparable. Nash goes to the ballpark with Cody, sitting near the fence so that he can scent Cody’s sugar levels each time he passes by.

He goes to church with the family, and even “scented” last Sunday from across the building, when Cody’s sugar level fell below the safe range. He has also picked up a sugar “high” in a crowded gym, at least fifty feet away from Cody, with hundreds of other people surrounding him.

Although Cody does have an insulin pump which monitors his sugar levels through a tube inserted into his stomach, his grandmother, Laurita Hogland, says that Nash often barks a warning up to 20 minutes before the pump registers the rise or fall that could potentially mean danger for Cody.

Nash has been trained to bark only when he is communicating that something is amiss with his owner’s blood sugar levels, in some situations, like in a restaurant, he will paw to get someone's attention. The only other time he barks is when it is play time, and he knows the difference very well. “When he plays, he plays hard,” said Hogland. “We play Frisbee with him, he loves to play ball, and swim, but when his play time is over, he knows that it’s time to go back to work, so he will stop playing on command and go back to work, monitoring Cody.”

Cody’s levels need to remain between 80 -150. Nash “alerts” at 200. In the past three weeks, since Nash has been with him, Cody’s sugar levels seemed to have leveled out radically. The family still sets the alarm clock, but that’s just for insurance. Nash has never, not once, missed a cue. He has alerted every single time that Cody’s levels have gotten out of range.

Hogland was a kindergarten teacher for 25 years. When school started this year, even though she retired last fall, she went back again. This time it was to teach Cody’s classmates about the newest addition to their group — Nash.

Yes, Nash is now officially a third-grader at Cold Springs Elementary. “There has never been a service dog in the Cullman County School System,” explained  Hogland. “They had to re-write the rules for Nash.”

Nash’s training had also prepared him for this. He can sit, fetch, lay down, stay, release, and “leave it” which means for him to drop or move away from something.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that every child needs to go through the same obedience training that Nash has been through,” laughed  Hogland.

The only place that Nash does not remain with Cody is in the lunchroom. Not because of any danger to anyone, or because he might forget his job duties amongst the tantalizing smells, but because he might learn the bad habit of eating food dropped on the floor. Nash stays in a portable kennel at lunchtime.

The children, curious at first, adjusted to Nash’s presence quickly. Service dogs wear a collar with a tag bearing the number to call to access a recording voicing the federal law regarding service dogs. There is no where, absolutely nowhere, that these dogs are prohibited from,” said Hogland.

“Everyone has been absolutely wonderful about Nash,” she said. “Cracker Barrel has been amazing.”

Chic-fil-A even brings Nash a bowl of water when he visits.

Because of the sensitivity of Nash’s training, and because he is a full-blooded lab, the cost to Cody’s family would have been prohibitive if not for the people in the community.

“We knew that we had to do something. Stephanie, Cody’s mother, was working 70 hours a week to provide insurance for Cody’s medications and doctor’s visits,” said Hogland.

The total for a dog with two years of such high level training was $13,000. In an effort to raise the money required to purchase Nash, there was a website dedicated to helping with the flow of donations. But it was a community singing that helped to push donations over the $15,000 mark. In just two-and-a-half weeks time they raised $25,000, which friends and contributors insisted that they keep for additional costs associated with both the diabetes and Nash’s upkeep.

A full-grown lab, Nash weighs 67 pounds. He must follow a specialized diet. The brand of food he eats, recommended by his trainers, is called “A Taste of the Wild” and costs $50 for a 30-pound bag.

“We want to thank everyone who helped us bring Cody and Nash together,” said a grateful Hogland. “We so appreciate everything that has been done for Cody.”

“Nash is now a community dog,” laughed Hogland.

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