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A nose for service

Wednesday, January 9, 2008 | 6:19 p.m. CST; updated 3:39 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
Duke is a Newfoundland dog that is currently being trained on the Reinkemeyer family's property in St. Elizabeth. Alice Reinkemeyer and her sister Heather, right, are part of Heaven Scent Paws, an organization run by their mother Michele that provides service dogs to diabetics.

Named after a particularly spunky character in the Garfield comics, Odie is a 2-year-old Collie who earns his keep by working for Hunter, the youngest child of the Nichols family. He serves as an extra pair of eyes, or rather a nose, to sense Hunter’s needs and notify Hunter’s parents if something is wrong.

“He will usually just come in and be annoying, like when he needs to go outside he will go to the door. He acts more like you need to check something,” said Jim Nichols, Hunter’s father.

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“It’s called pestering,” said Michele Reinkemeyer, founder of Heaven Scent Paws, the organization that trains these unique service dogs. In the case of 18-month-old Hunter, who was born with leukemia and has Down Syndrome, Odie might one day be needed to alert Hunter’s parents of seizures, which he can be trained to predict through scent.

Perhaps the best-known use for service dogs is in guiding the blind. But dogs like Odie can be trained to perform many tasks for people with varying disabilities, such as opening a door or calling an elevator. As long as the dog performs tasks to assist with a person’s disabilities, the service animal is protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. In Missouri, as in all other compliant states, a service dog is allowed on all streets, sidewalks and public places.

There are an estimated 60,000 service dogs in the country, though the number is difficult to pin down because there is no mandatory registration and many people train their own animals, said Michelle Cobey, resource support for the Delta Society, an organization that spreads awareness about the benefits of service animals.

Heaven Scent Paws provides dogs to people with seizure disorders, Type 1 diabetes, and mobility, vision and hearing difficulties. The organization began in 2003 after Reinkemeyer’s son, Joseph, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and began experiencing seizures due to low blood sugar. Type 1 diabetes — an inability to produce insulin, a hormone essential in transferring sugar from the blood to the cells, resulting in unstable blood sugars — is typically diagnosed at childhood. The disease requires multiple daily insulin injections and is a balancing act to ensure blood sugars don’t go too high or too low. While high blood sugar is dangerous, low blood sugar poses more of a threat because — if gone unchecked — a person can lose consciousness quickly, according to the American Diabetes Association’s Web site. This situation can eventually lead to seizures and, in a worst case scenario, a coma.

“These seizures are your child’s nervous system shutting down,” Reinkemeyer said. “In essence, they are dying.”

Frequent episodes of hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, can result in “hypoglycemia unawareness,” where the diabetic can no longer sense the symptoms of his or her blood sugar decreasing. That’s where the pups from Heaven Scent Paws come in.

Reinkemeyer’s previous experience working with search and rescue dogs inspired her to train a dog to smell out her son’s lows. She began working with a puppy named Delta several hours a day using customized techniques to train the animal to alert Joseph to his low blood sugars.

“My only guess was scent because my son smelled different when he was really low then when he was really high,” Reinkemeyer said. “So I just took clothing off the child and used it with the dog.”

Although she was told training Delta for such a task was impossible, Delta began barking and “pestering” her new family until Joseph caught her hint to check his blood sugar.

Although they had no intentions of starting a business, the Reinkemeyers now have up to 50 dogs in training on their St. Elizabeth property at a time. Since Joseph’s diagnosis, two more of the eight Reinkemeyer children have been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and the children are key to the dogs’ training.

The Reinkemeyers started the company to help other families facing similar problems. And despite threats from their children of never wanting to own another dog, the Reinkemeyers love what they do. In the past two years, Heaven Scent Paws has placed 48 dogs a year in homes all over the nation. The family offers three-week training sessions four times a year for 10 to 12 families.

Getting a job as a Heaven Scent Paws service dog isn’t easy. Many of the pups are rescues and must first pass a series of tests before being teamed with an applicant.

“I look for a dog who is going to be submissive enough to do as I ask, who is going to please me, but not be so submissive that they’re scared all the time,” Reinkemeyer said. “(We look to see that) they have an alerting ability. A lot of times what we will do is have someone ring a doorbell and if (the dog goes) running for that door, they are smart enough to realize it means something.”

After 18 to 24 months of training, the dog is ready to put his skills to use. Because the bond between a human and a dog is essential to success, the Reinkemeyers have to play matchmaker with their trained dogs and applicants.

“You literally do a personality profile on the family, the individual and the dog. It’s almost like a marriage,” Reinkemeyer said. “You can have a really good person and a really good dog, but if it’s not a match, it’s going to fail.”

A dog’s high-powered nose can discern various smells and focus solely on a person’s biological scent, said Mark Ruefenacht, founder of Dogs 4 Diabetics, a California organization that also provides dogs to hypoglycemic-prone diabetics. The biological scent will change when a person’s blood sugar fluctuates, he said.

“What we are training the dogs to do is to alert in advance of hitting a (hypoglycemic) number that becomes incapacitating to the person,” Ruefenacht said. “So we are looking at the blood sugar drop instead of an absolute number.”

Ruefenacht has Type 1 diabetes himself, and he began his nonprofit after an alerting experience by his dog, Armstrong. He did extensive research on the scents emitted by the human body during cases of hypoglycemia, using his scientific background working with Breathalyzers.

In October 2003, Ruefenacht began training dogs who didn’t meet the requirements for guide dogs for the blind, but still had an excellent sense of smell.

“The first dog we trained was my dog, Armstrong, when he was a guide-dog puppy. He had a career change for being a little too playful, but he had an excellent nose,” he said.

His decision to use guide dogs came from a long history of involvement with guide dogs due to a history of blindness and diabetes in his family. His dual interest is also beneficial for those who suffer from both conditions.

“About 40 to 50 percent of the people that apply for guide dogs are blind because of diabetes, so this gives them a dual tool,” Ruefenacht said.

Blindness and diabetes are not the only conditions that can be helped through this scent-based training. The dog’s sensitive nose is able to pick up any chemical change occurring in the body, Reinkemeyer said, which means these dogs can be used to alert to seizure disorders as well.

“Even different seizures have different scents, so if they have those spatials where they kind of stare off into space, that will change the scent," Reinkemeyer said. “If they have a grand mal it’s a different type of scent.”

Fortunately, Hunter’s seizures have tapered off. But should they begin again, Odie could potentially be taught to alert to them.

After some initial getting used to, the boy and his dog have become good friends. Once Hunter gains a little more upper body strength, Odie will begin his duties as a mobility specialist.


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