CONTRA COSTA, Calif. -- Four women and a child can now move through their days with a little less angst because of the prompts they now get, be they a gentle nudge, or a more boisterous pawing.
The nonprofit, Concord-based Early Alert Canines recently trained and matched these Type 1 diabetics with dogs that can detect the subtle scents of low blood sugars.
"We can't smell it ... It gets down to a molecular level," says organization executive director Carol Edwards, noting the detection of a "cocktail of chemicals," such as acetone, adrenaline and endorphins, which are released into the bloodstream as a diabetic's glucose is dropping.
Over a period of 17 years, paramedics have been dispatched on several occasions to revive Nancy Harrison. She has long lived with a disease that "hits very hard, very fast, randomly, and at the worst possible times."
"I knew I needed (a service dog) to save my life," she says.
The Pleasanton resident now finds her self being awakened in the night by an 80-pound yellow Labrador on her chest, alerting her that her glucose level is starting to plummet.
"He gets in my face ... He'll plow me down to get me to pay attention to him," says Harrison, about Kade, who she describes as "a forever puppy."
Trained initially by Guide Dogs, Kade had a penchant for eating paper towels, socks and dryer sheets that made him unsuitable for the sight-impaired. But when it comes to alerting Harrison, he is all business.
Kade commutes with her to San Leandro and puts his head on her shoulder and starts licking her face if her sugars are low.
A piece of freeze-dried chicken is one of Kade's favorite treats.
"Carol tells us 'we don't want (your sugar level) to drop, but they do.' That's their treat time. It's a very demented way this works," Harrison attests.
For two years, Mindy Anderson has had to worry about dropping sugar levels, and whether her son will wake up in the morning.
She now has some peace of mind and restful sleep.
"All the stars aligned and came together," Anderson says of their search for a companion dog for their son, Nathan, 5.
Oakley, a 2-year-old Labrador retriever mix, alerts the family about the boy's dropping blood sugar with her "ready to go somewhere" pose. Her ears are forward; she ignores commands; and pulls away when she's petted.
"Having Oakley here is very reassuring. She's one more set of eyes -- or nose -- to see what's happening," says Anderson, who lives in Yorba Linda.
She says Nathan balks at cleanup after Oakley, but feeds, brushes, plays ball and gives her treats to solidify their bond.
During the training this spring, the five participants and their prospective service dogs navigated public transportation, walked in the mall and dined at a popular restaurant.
Labradors and retrievers are good bets for the canine portion of that match with their characteristic loyalty, ability to adapt to new situations and strong work ethic, Edwards explains.
Because Stephanie Lovdokken has Ozark, a 2-year-old yellow Lab, at her side, her young son says he "doesn't have to worry so much about (her) anymore."
And, one of her third-grade students has noticed that she doesn't "get grumpy anymore."
"I would get so focused on the kids, I wouldn't realize what my own body was doing," says Lovdokken, who lives in Oregon.
Ozark has signaled low and high glucose levels approximately 290 times in the few weeks they have been together. He fixes his gaze on her, taps her with his paw, or gives her a lick on her arm.
He's awakened her a couple of times in the night, alerted her before her ability to drive was impaired, and has stopped in his tracks when the two are running together.
"He won't budge till he sees me eat something," she says, noting that his prized rewards are mini-marshmallows and strips of jerky.
Peanut butter-flavored treats and gluten-free Cheerios are popular rewards for Leslie's alert efforts.
Since her diagnosis at age 3, Leslie's owner, Chrystal Mota, 27, has been on some "scary roads," including trips to the hospital when she struggled to regain consciousness.
The 3-year-old golden retriever/Lab mix, always accurate, gets the Sacramento resident to check her numbers a few times per day.
"She has this motherly instinct, this very strong lick and she'll keep going till I get above 90," Mota says. "She's very persistent."
Like any successful pairing, Edwards evaluates the dogs' and the possible future owners' temperaments and lifestyles.
Hoops, born three years ago during March Madness, and San Francisco resident Nancy Cook, 59, are one such ideal match.
He now quietly rides Muni with Cook to her job as an administrative assistant for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, sporting his maroon vest with gold lettering reading Early Alert Canines and un-phased by the city's noise.
Putting his head in her lap or a paw on her knee alerts Cook that she needs to check her levels, long before she's symptomatic.
"He's training me that I need to trust him," Cook says of the 70-pound lap dog, also describing the initial requirement of being "umbilically corded to this dog" to accelerate the bonding process.celebration and walk
For more information about Early Alert Canines, call 925-349-5190, or visitwww.earlyalertcanines.org . A Diabetic Youth Foundation Day Celebration and Walk is planned at 10 a.m. Sunday, April 29, at Heather Farm Park, 301 N. San Carlos Drive, in Walnut Creek. For information about the event, visitwww.dyf.org .