NORTH LIBERTY — Last week, Becky Russo got busy. Too busy. She wasn’t paying attention to her blood sugars, which — as a type I diabetic with extreme lows and highs — can be dangerous, even life threatening.
Or, at least, it used to be. This time when the North Liberty mother let her mind drift to the demands of the day, someone was watching her back.
“I had been ignoring her at that point, but she had been following me,” Russo, 25, said about her new diabetic alert dog, Biscuit. “She knocked me on the hand and then sat down. And she was right. I was low.”
Biscuit, an 11-month-old goldendoodle who has been with Russo for just two weeks, already has gotten into the routine of alerting her “alpha” at least four times a day when her blood sugar levels start to slide. She’s been trained to alert Russo — via paw to the hand — when her blood sugars fall below 70.
On occasion, Biscuit’s alerts have seemed unnecessary. She once alerted Russo when her sugars were around 100. Russo found that strange, until she retested 10 minutes later and discovered her levels plummeted to 50.
“So she can alert me right before I’m going to make a big drop,” Russo said, adding that scientists aren’t exactly sure what the dogs are picking up on when they make an alert. “She just knows, and it works.”
Five months ago, when Russo first talked with The Gazette, she was a mother living in fear. She had been blind sighted just a year earlier with the diagnosis of type I diabetes. It’s a severe form that comes with wild and unexpected swings that can, at any moment in the day or night, send her into a coma.
She stayed awake at nights worrying what might happen to her 2-year-old daughter. She had heard about diabetic alert dogs but knew they cost upward of $10,000.
“It makes me want to cry when I think about how many people made her possible,” Russo said.
Hundreds of donations poured in, from $5 gifts to $500 checks.
“This has been a life lesson, and it’s made me so thankful, so incredibly thankful for friends and community,” Russo said. “It’s changed how I’m going to live my life. On behalf of everyone who donated, I’m going to pay forward their generosity to someone else.”
It’s also changed her every day in fundamental ways.
“She’s given me a new sense of freedom,” Russo said. “I can go hiking now and running. I was so limited before.”
Biscuit cost $10,000, which is half as much as a fully-trained diabetic alert dog. She had been trained for seven months before being assigned to Russo. The difference, Russo said, is that Biscuit has not been trained in public scenarios — taken to malls, on buses, or to work places.
But, Russo said, she’s considered a fully-trained service dog taught to detect blood sugar highs and lows in human saliva. If Russo drops below 70, Biscuit paws her right hands, sits and waits for Russo to test and treat herself.
If Russo doesn’t respond, Biscuit tries again. If that doesn’t work, she’s been trained to alert Russo’s boyfriend and daughter.
“She knows to go tell someone else in the house,” Russo said.
The science isn’t totally clear on what the dogs are sensing, but they’ve successfully alerted from 400 feet away and from different houses.
“It’s pretty incredible,” Russo said.
Biscuit soon will accompany Russo every where she goes as a service dog.
“Will she save my life some day? I think so,” Russo said. “She already has increased what I can do with my life.”