5-year-old's pup can detect diabetes ups and downs

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CLEAR BROOK, Va. (AP) — Five-year-old Will Rimmel adores the new puppy he got last month.

Just 17 weeks old, the black Labrador retriever loves to play catch with Will or rest quietly and chew a ball by his feet.

But Harley, as Will named her, is more than a young boy's new best friend.

She could save his life.

Will has Type 1 diabetes, which causes life-threatening dips and spikes in his blood sugar.

Harley can sniff out changes in Will's blood sugar 20 to 45 minutes before he feels the difference or his parents notice anything's wrong.

"The dog allows him a little independence and gives us a little more peace of mind," said Will's mother, Lara Rimmel, as she watched Will and Harley play in the yard of their Frederick County home.

In the two years since Will was diagnosed, Lara and her husband Rob have monitored his diabetes with a round-the-clock vigilance that can be exhausting.

Will must eat on a strict schedule and get an insulin injection after every meal. His parents test his blood sugar eight to 15 times a day, even creeping into his bedroom in the middle of the night to stick his finger while he sleeps.

"A lot of times he'll be fine," Rimmel said. "But I don't know that, so I still get up."

Help arrived when Harley bounded in with her two trainers and a 80-page user's manual.

She's already proven she aced her training.

Within 15 minutes of first arriving at the Rimmel home, Harley started sending warning signs.

A check of Will's blood sugar showed it was 318, when it should be more in the range of 80 to 180.

The Rimmels got Harley through Guardian Angel Service Dogs, the nonprofit arm of Warren Retrievers in Orange. The firm also trains dogs to detect seizures or help people with post-traumatic stress disorder or autism.

"Diabetes tends to be our primary focus because I'm a Type 1 diabetic," said owner Dan Warren, who began training service dogs after his diagnosis about nine years ago at the age of 30.

Guardian Angel Service Dogs now places 300 to 500 dogs a year.

Potential service dogs must have the right temperament and, of course, a powerful nose.

A diabetic whose blood sugar is too high will smell fruity or like cotton candy. If their blood sugar is too low, they'll smell like fingernail polish remover, Warren said.

When Harley's highly sensitive nose detects a change, she alerts by whimpering or pawing.

When she's fully trained — at 18 to 24 months — Harley will be able to call 911 by pressing a button or even run and bring back a juice box in her mouth.

It wasn't hard to figure out that something was wrong with Will. Driving home from a trip a couple years ago, the family had to stop six times in 2 hours for Will to go to the bathroom.

Later that week, he kept asking for one drink after another.

The Rimmels knew one of the signs of diabetes was great thirst, along with increased urination and fatigue.

When they took him to the hospital, his sugar level was above 600.

"The first thing the doctor said is, 'You are now his lifeline,'" Rimmel said. "That was the hardest statement to hear."

In Type 1 diabetes, previously called juvenile diabetes because it most often occurs in children and young adults, the pancreas doesn't produce insulin and the body can't use the sugar it needs for fuel. Patients must take insulin to regulate blood sugar.

About 3 million Americans may have Type 1 diabetes and nearly 80 people each day are diagnosed with the disease, according to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

It's extremely difficult to regulate children's blood sugar, Rimmel said.

Will's level can change because of anxiety, hormones, a growth spurt or even how hard he's been playing.

"Every day is different," Rimmel said.

Since Will's diagnosis, the Rimmels have made it their mission to educate others about the symptoms of Type 1 diabetes. The family has worked to raise money for juvenile diabetes research through a four-mile run in June and a golf outing in September.

Now they're raising money to pay for Harley and to help out other families who need service dogs, since insurance doesn't cover the cost.

A dog trained to detect blood sugar fluctuations costs between $19,000 and $25,000, Rimmel said.

Though not yet fully trained, Harley is already living with the Rimmels so she can bond with Will. A trainer will come to visit every few months.

She has already gone with the family to Chick-fil-A, Lowe's and Target. Wearing her pink service vest, Harley can go into any stores and restaurants. She could even accompany Will to kindergarten in the fall.

Will knows why Harley is here. "She pawed me because I was low (in blood sugar)," he said, bending down to touch his toes.

The family is still adjusting to the new family member and deciphering her clues. Is she whimpering because she needs to go outside or does she sense something wrong with Will?

Also, Will is not the only little boy in the house excited to get a dog. Big brother Jake is waiting for his turn to feed Harley, since she must eat from Will's hand for the first two weeks to help with bonding.

"This is our family dog," Rimmel said she tells 7-year-old Jake. "But she is here to help Will, and to help us all. She could be a lifesaver."

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Information from: The Winchester Star, http://www.winchesterstar.com

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