Lending a Paw

After being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in April 2018, Morgan Clements and her family welcomed diabetic alert dog Iris into their home earlier this month.
Morgan, who lives in Oak Ridge and is in second grade at Colfax Elementary School, was diagnosed after her grandmother speculated there was something wrong when Morgan had extreme thirst and excessive urination. Morgan’s grandmother mentioned it to Morgan’s mom, Jessica. After they saw the behavior again while eating out a week later, Jessica said they took Morgan to the doctor, where it was confirmed that she had type 1 diabetes.
“The doctor came in and said it was more than likely that she had diabetes and told us to go to the hospital right away,” she said in an earlier interview, noting that her A1C was 10.7 and her blood sugar was 405.
After being diagnosed, the Clement family’s whole life changed, as they described it similar to having another child. Morgan’s dad, Scott, said they had to monitor Morgan and her blood sugar levels, including throughout the night. Jessica said they have to count Morgan’s carbs, making sure she stays between 40 – 70 carbs per meal, and she can only have two 15 carb snacks – one before lunch and one before dinner.
Jessica said Morgan has both an insulin device and blood sugar device, as well as a phone to track them. They, in turn, are able to see information from those devices from an app on their phones. Prior to having these devices, Jessica said Morgan had to prick her finger more than 20 times a day and had to have four insulin shots a day. The pump slowly gives Morgan insulin throughout the day.
Although Morgan has less freedom, she is still able to participate in sports and is very active.
Jessica explained that they started the process to get a diabetic alert dog in April of this year.
“We wanted to get her a diabetic alert dog after hearing from other people, and it’s an extra security blanket for us, especially in the middle of the night,” she said.
Iris arrived on Monday, September 9 with Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers (SDWR) Training Director Erin Gray, who is staying with the family for four days to help with training.
Jessica said Morgan spoke with all the second graders at Colfax Elementary School to tell them about Iris, the etiquette that is expected around a diabetic alert dog, and to answer any questions. She noted that when someone is around a service dog, they should essentially ignore the dog – don’t make eye contact, don’t touch and don’t talk to the dog.
“Since getting Iris, Morgan has been doing half days at school while she is training,” she shared.
Jessica said Iris has been going to Morgan’s sports and once Iris is ready to attend school with Morgan, she will go with her mom as the handler, first going to classes that are more challenging for a dog, such as gym, recess and lunch. Eventually, Morgan will be the handler at school.
“We’re trying to make them as independent as possible,” said Gray.
Morgan said she really likes Iris.
“She’s nice and she’s already attached to me,” she said. “When Iris is around, I feel good. I like to play fetch with her, brush her and her teeth, and she sleeps with me at night.”
“Their bond is very strong for four days,” Gray remarked.
Jessica agreed, “She won’t even eat if Morgan isn’t with her. Morgan is the one who takes her out, walks her and gives her a treat.”
Jessica said every morning, Morgan takes Iris out to play fetch before she gets ready to school.
“I like playing fetch with her and tug of war with the rope,” Morgan said.
Gray shared that there’s a lesson in playing games like this for Iris.
“It’s all fun stuff, but it’s all building to learn to do other tasks like tugging or pulling on a cabinet or getting juice, snacks, or her glucose monitor. It all depends on what we work towards,” she said.
Gray said Iris alerted to Morgan on the third day and when Iris goes up to a family member after alerting to Morgan, the family member who Iris paws gives her a treat so she learns who she can go to for help.
“She has to adapt to a new home and new people,” she said.
It’s also an adjustment for the Clements family as they have to learn all new commands, and the dos and don’ts.
“It’s a daily effort,” Jessica remarked.
After spending the initial four days of training, Gray said she will return every three to four months for the next 18 months to two years.
“They have a lifetime training guarantee,” she added.
In making sure that Morgan and her family received the right dog, Gray said the Clements family filled out an application and intake form about themselves and their lives, including how active they are, how often and where they go for vacations, pets in the home and other things.
“She needed a higher energy dog to keep up with her,” Gray said. “We match them with what they tell us about their life and the dog’s behavior.”
Along with Iris, the Clements have other animals in their home, including an English Bulldog, named Cinnamon, a Golden Doodle, named Oakley, and two cats, named Socks and Tarheel.
Gray explained that they use Labrador Retrievers because they are natural retrievers, making them great for going to get people or things that are needed, and they are non-threatening dogs.
She added that they begin training the dogs around seven-weeks-old with volunteer families that raise them. Once they reach the age of one or two, they are brought back to SDWR for training assessment to see what the dog would be good for and to fix anything that needs to be fixed in their training.
Gray said the cost for each dog from puppy to placement is $47,000 and each family must either make a donation or fundraise to make a donation of $25,000 before they can receive a service dog from SDWR. That cost includes puppy training, vet care, kenneling, food, access vests and breeding acquisitions, fundraising and marketing, administration and client support, and post placement trainers salaries and travel.
The dogs are used not only as diabetic alert dogs, but can also be trained as autism service dogs, seizure response dogs, and PTSD service dogs.
For more information about SDWR or to make a donation, visit www.sdwr.org or call 540-543-2307.

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