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Diabetic alert dog an 'extra, safe tool' for 6-year-old

By Megan Workman

SCOTT DEPOT, W.Va. -- Next week, Rylyn Bielinski will take the most important items to first grade every day: a backpack, a lunchbox and a continuous glucose monitor. The 6-year-old diabetic is trying to raise money so that she can bring a new, furry companion to school: a "diabetic alert dog."

Rylyn found out two weeks before her fifth birthday that she has Type 1 diabetes. The energetic brunette handled the news -- followed by pokes from needles for blood work and shots -- much better than her mother, Jamie Bielinski said.

"At first I was shocked and in denial. Then I was asking what I messed up as her mom," Bielinski said. "She quickly became accustomed to the way of life and she handled it better than I did. Every time I would check her finger, I would cry and she would tell me not to cry."

Rylyn's fingers are poked 12 times a day to check her blood sugar levels. Her parents have to weigh every meal to count carbohydrates and sugars. Making sure Rylyn has enough insulin to balance with the foods she eats is a daily task, Bielinski said.

When her daughter's eyes start to go low and her skin goes pale, Bielinski knows Rylyn's blood sugar levels are off. Juice boxes and a glucose shot are always on hand.

Bielinski said it "was extremely frightening" to research and learn more about the disease.

She eventually found information about service dogs assisting diabetics, and said she knew a diabetic alert dog would be perfect for her animal-loving daughter.

After reaching out to a type 1 diabetic online community forum, Bielinski found herself on Tidewater K9 Cares' website.

The Virginia-based nonprofit group has trained companion and service dogs for more than 30 years. Two years ago, Tidewater K9 Cares started training diabetic alert dogs as a way to help others, said Scott Smith, a service dog trainer at Tidewater K9 who is training Rylyn's potential dog.

Tidewater K9 Cares has placed 14 diabetic service dogs since 2010.

"For years and years we taught dogs how to bite people for protection but these dogs save lives. These diabetic alert dogs can really benefit people," Smith said.

Diabetics have relied on diabetic alert dogs for about five years, Smith said. The dogs are becoming more popular since they are good tools to manage the disease, he said.

The dogs are trained to recognize a change in the diabetic's scent, Smith explained. When a diabetic's blood sugar is too high, his or her body releases a sweet odor, Bielinski said. The dog alerts the diabetic of a change by nudging people or placing a paw in their lap.

Rylyn's dog is being trained to use a bringsel, a small round object on the dog's collar that the dog can use to let Rylyn know that her blood sugar levels are fluctuating. Since she is so young, the diabetic alert dog will also notify her parents.

Tidewater K9 trains labradoodles (a mix between a Labrador retriever and a poodle) and goldendoodles (a mix between a golden retriever and a poodle). It takes 12 to 18 months to train a diabetic alert dog, Smith said.

Most diabetic alert dogs are trained through a process called imprinting, Smith said. Puppies are introduced to the scent of lower blood sugar when they are just two days old while they feed with their mother. Introducing the puppies to the distinctive scent during feeding creates a strong attraction to the scent, Smith said.

A dog learning to recognize the scent of low blood sugar then alerting someone is one of the three components in training diabetic alert dogs. The other two methods are basic obedience and public access, which socializes the dog to be familiar with different sounds, footings, and vibrations, Smith said.

When a diabetic's blood sugar fluctuates, they get shaky and sweaty, Smith said. But diabetics who are Hypoglycemic Unaware do not get those feelings, Smith said, which is why diabetic alert dogs are even more helpful.

"The dogs are fitting a niche for these people who can't feel their [blood sugar level] lows and their highs. These dogs can recognize it and say hey it's time to check your blood sugar," Smith said.

Owning a diabetic alert dog is another tool in Rylyn's life to keep her safe, her mother said. Rylyn already carries a continuous glucose monitor, but it can have a delayed reaction, Bielinski said.

"The continuous monitors don't actually sample blood so they are usually 15 to 30 minutes behind what the meter tells me my blood sugar is. The dog knows what's going on ahead of the meter and certainly ahead of the continuous monitors," Smith said. "These dogs are on the clock 24 hours a day, seven days a week and they're constantly monitoring the diabetic's blood sugar."

Rylyn's goldendoodle will complete training between the month of November and Christmas, Smith said. Until then, the Scott Depot resident is focusing on raising money for the $20,000 service dog.

Rylyn's parents have sold appliances, Bielinski is making and selling hair bows and one young friend even set up a free lemonade stand with all of her donations going toward Rylyn's diabetic alert dog. The Bielinskis have raised $5,000 so far.

The family's next fundraiser is Friday at Waves of Fun in Hurricane. From 6:15 p.m. to 8:15 p.m., guests can pay a $5 admission that will go toward paying for Rylyn's diabetic alert dog.

"I just sold a brand new stainless steel oven and that money is getting sent directly to Tidewater K9," Bielinski said. "It's worth it. Whatever gets her the dog."

To learn more about Rylyn's diabetic alert dog visit http://www.facebook.com/ADiabeticAlertDogForRylyn. To donate, visit http://tidewaterk9.com/cares/contribute.html and donate to Rylyn.

Reach Megan Workman at megan.workman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.


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