Ashley Kinstler doesn’t trust her own body.
The 21-year-old Toledo woman is one of more than 25 million people in the United States with diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association.
She was hospitalized with extremely high blood sugar just before her 16th birthday and subsequently diagnosed with Type I diabetes, a condition under which her body does not produce the insulin that converts sugar to energy.
“After my first extreme low [blood-sugar level], I got that feeling where I felt unsafe in my own body,” she said. “I hit that reality check that, wow, I could really not wake up one morning.”
Though both low and high blood sugar could put her in a coma, lows are much easier to reach and more common.
It is this danger, especially worrisome during sleep when her insulin pump could be set to further lower that level, that gives Ms. Kinstler severe anxiety about her blood-sugar readings.
“The anxiety has really taken over my life,” she said. “That’s why I’m getting a [service] dog.”
Ms. Kinstler learned about diabetic-alert dogs about a year and a half ago.
These service dogs use their sense of smell to detect highs, lows, and sudden drops in blood sugar and will alert their owners to the problem.
The dogs can retrieve diabetic supplies and will seek help if their owner is unresponsive.
Ms. Kinstler said the average diabetic checks his or her blood sugar between four and eight times per day. She checks an average of 20 to 30 times a day — at a cost of about $1 per test strip for her glucose meter.
“There’s times I check two or three times an hour, and it’s not necessary. It’s just to ease my mind,” she said.
“If I start thinking about what my blood sugar is and I don’t check it, I have panic attacks.”
In May, Ms. Kinstler will head to Jasper, Texas, to get Keona, a 1-year-old black British Labrador trained by Drey’s Alert Dogs.
“The dogs are able to smell the change happening before the glucose meter can pick it up,” said Cindy Terrell, assistant director for Drey’s. “The dog is smelling the change as it’s taking place, whereas the meter is measuring something that’s already happened.”
Keona will paw Ms. Kinstler any time her blood sugar gets out of the normal range or takes a sudden plunge, even while she is sleeping. She then can adjust her insulin pump appropriately to increase the dose or stop the flow.
Keona is also trained to push an alarm button and go get help if Ms. Kinstler is unresponsive.
Drey’s Dogs traveled to Indiana for a training camp in early February, and it was close enough that Ms. Kinstler could drive there to meet Keona. Because the dogs are trained using saliva samples from their future owners, the Lab identified Ms. Kinstler immediately by her scent.
“She noticed me as soon as I got there,” she said. “When I walked in the room, they had probably 50 dogs in individual kennels. None of them were remotely moving or barking or anything except for her. It was amazing.”
Keona alerted her future owner twice during the visit, first to a high and then to a steep drop shortly thereafter.
“She was going crazy,” Ms. Kinstler said. “She was pawing and pawing and pawing me.”
Keona will sense what her owner is going through as it’s happening. That is very reassuring for Ms. Kinstler, whose goal is to get down to testing her blood sugar no more than 10 times per day.
“I can educate everyone around me, and they can know what to do in case of emergency, but they can’t tell me what I’m feeling inside. Right now, only I know if I’m about to pass out, but this dog is going to be able to sense that,” she said. “That’s going to be a big comfort to me.”
Keona is going to help the entire family feel more at ease.
“You definitely worry about what could happen,” Ms. Kinstler’s mother, Sharon Kinstler, said. “It is going to be so amazingly comforting to us to know that she has that dog to help her. It’s going to be life-changing for her.”
One of Drey’s previous dogs, named Lexi, has helped her owner work on a family farm in southern Iowa and participate in high-school sports without fear of a diabetic crash.
James Evans, 16, is a very athletic teenager, which can wreak havoc on his blood-sugar level.
“Diabetes can take a kid out of so many activities and make their lives so different,” said the teen’s mother, Amy Evans. “Our goal is to make his life as normal as possible.”
Lexi stays on the sidelines of sports events but still can smell James and will alert the adult she is sitting with.
“She just gives us so much peace of mind,” Mrs. Evans said. “She helps him in all those situations that are so worrisome.”
Getting a diabetic-alert dog isn’t cheap because of its intensive training, breeding, and health guarantees: Keona comes with a price tag of $15,000.
Ms. Kinstler began raising funds in April last year and has raised about $11,200 so far online and through various events such as bake sales and dinners.
“I want to continue fund-raising to help other families too,” Ms. Kinstler said.