Keen-scented pooch helps boy manage type 1 diabetes


by Sarah Forgany / KENS 5

Posted on May 4, 2012 at 8:34 AM

SAN ANTONIO -- More than a decade ago, 14-year-old Ben Ownby was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes -- a disease than can be deadly if not monitored closely.

To help him keep a handle on his diabetes, Ownby made a very special friendship. A friendship with a dog, who’s now his lifeline.

Dakota has the lead role In theater class at Eisenhower Middle School.

“Just watch. You’ll see he’s very poised.” the teacher said.

And with a keen sense of smell, he plays the most important part of all: saving Ben Ownby.

“He’s a really good friend,” Ownby said.

At school, at restaurants and at home, these friends have been inseparable for three years. Ownby cares for Dakota and Dakota takes care of Ownby, especially when his parents can’t.

“There’s always that fear, 'Is he going to be OK?” Bob Ownby said about his son.

Bob Ownby's fears started when his son was only 17-months-old, which is the first time his son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. If his disease is not monitored every hour of the day, it can be deadly.

Ownby has had seizures and takes seven to eight shots of insulin a day to survive. But since he’s allergic to adhesive, he can’t wear a continuous glucose monitor to alert him when his blood sugars need attention. That’s where Dakota plays her part. The cute, cuddly Labradoodle is also his monitor.
“He can tell my blood sugar by the scent of my breath,” Ownby explained.

If Ben’s breath indicates his sugar is too low, Dakota jumps up. If it’s too high, he nibbles on Ben’s wristband. Once Ben gets the signal, he uses the traditional machine to check his blood levels.

“I woke up in the middle of the night and he was just standing on me and just looking at me," Ownby said. "I woke up and tested my blood sugar and it was low. He’s usually very accurate.”

A dog has more than 200 million scent receptors in comparison to a human’s five-million. When blood sugars begin to fluctuate, the human body releases chemicals that change the body’s smell. It's usually unnoticeable to the human nose, but to a trained nose like Dakota’s, it’s an alarm.

Cherry Campbell, with Warren Retrievers, a non-profit based in Virginia, said it takes months to train diabetes alert dogs.

“They can actually detect a rise or a fall up to an hour before you know it or your meter would catch it,” Campbell said. “We breed them specifically for their scenting, personalities and their temperament.”

Dakota was actually trained to be a guide dog at Guide Dogs of Texas in San Antonio but he didn’t pass the final requirements. He was then retrained to detect glucose levels.

The pup's skills have even helped Ownby’s classmates.

“He’s come next to me to signal that I need to check my blood sugar,” Ben’s classmate said. "I have been low.”

And for Ownby, Dakota is a sense of security.

“He’s a tool that we can utilize to help us with safety of our son,” Bob Ownby said. “It was love at first sight.”

There’s an undeniable love and bond between Ownby and Dakota -- a friend and a partner, who may one day save Ownby's life.