From the time Megan Rekart was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in July 2010, she’s had trouble regulating her blood sugar. She doesn’t seem to feel her highs and lows coming on, which means her sugar can go dangerously low or spike really high without any warning.
The first insulin pump Megan tried didn’t work. She had an allergic reaction to the type of insulin. She switched to an OmniPod pump and, while she’s not had an allergic reaction, her highs and lows are still unpredictable.
For the last two years, Megan’s mom, Nicole Rekart, has searched for something that could help her daughter catch her highs and lows as they are coming on, and after asking around, she thought she’d found the solution — a diabetic alert dog.
These are dogs that are trained to use their sense of smell to alert when a diabetic is experiencing high or low blood sugar, said Nicole.
“It’s a pheromone that the dog smells,” she explained.
The only problem was the cost — upward of $7,500, Nicole said.
That was beyond the family’s reach, but they didn’t give up. A friend in Oregon told them that she was self-training a dog to be a diabetic alert dog.
Now the problem was finding a dog. The family had a pet dog, Sassy, but she didn’t show any indication of being sensitive to Megan’s highs or lows.
Then everything changed one day when the family was at Purina Farms for a homeschool field trip. Stray Rescue of St. Louis was there with several of its dogs that were available for adoption, and one of the dogs, Grace, a Lab/shepherd mix, leapt out of the arms of her handler to run to Megan.
“She just began licking her all over,” Nicole recalled. “I thought, ‘What’s up?’ But because I had read about these diabetic alert dogs, I told Megan to check her blood sugar and she was low — she was at 70 and normal for her is 80 to 150.”
The family had several more encounters with Grace, and each time the dog seemed naturally drawn to Megan, several times alerting her to a high or low blood sugar. So the family applied to adopt her and began searching for a trainer.
They found Robin Ottomeier, owner of Preppie Paws LLC, who has been training dogs for years, professionally for the last five. She had the credentials they needed — AKC Canine Good Citizen evaluator, experienced AKC competitor, member of Therapy Dogs Inc., Therapy Dogs Inc. tester/observer, member of Missouri Rhineland Kennel Club, Franklin County Humane Society volunteer and a member of International Association of Canine Professionals.
She began working with Grace and Megan in group basic obedience classes, but also one-on-one at the Rekart home, where Robin is training Grace to alert on Megan’s high and low blood sugar scents.
“Grace is being trained to alert just to Megan’s blood sugar changes and no one else’s,” said Robin.
Grace goes with Megan everywhere — church, the store . . . It’s part of the socialization Grace needs for her training as a diabetic alert dog, said Robin, but it’s also because even without being fully trained, Grace is alerting Megan to her highs and lows.
“You need a highly socialized dog, a very good-natured dog to be a service dog,” said Robin. “That’s the start.”
Right now Grace alerts Megan by touching her or acting in an unusual manner for her. Eventually Grace will be trained to alert Megan by touching her paw to a specific point on Megan’s body, like her knee or her arm, said Robin.
It will be in the same place every time so there won’t be any question of what the dog is trying to communicate, Robin said.
“Right now we are training by association,” she explained. “Grace smells the smell of when Megan is low and if she alerts to it, she gets a treat.
“Once the lows are mastered, we will begin working on the highs.”
Grace and Megan have about one more year of training ahead of them. In the end Grace will be a certified all-around service dog with special emphasis in diabetic alerting, said Robin.
The Rekarts feel lucky to have found Robin, who isn’t charging them a flat fee of thousands of dollars for her training. The family is paying for the training as they go, which is helping to keep it more manageable, said Nicole.
Still, the training fees do pile up, especially on top of other expenses that come along with diabetes, so the family has teamed up with the Dani Brooks family to hold a fundraiser.
Shop for a Cure will be held Friday, July 13, between noon and 4 p.m. at Zumba Fitness of Union (near Anytime Fitness behind Pasta House).
More than a dozen home-based businesses will have booths set up to showcase and sell their products — Scrumptious Cheesecakes and More, the Hot Dog Man, Pampered Chef, Tastefully Simple, Thirty-One and several more.
There also will be a silent auction with a variety of items including two hockey pucks signed by St. Louis Blues players.
And volunteers with Stray Rescue, from where Grace was adopted, will be on hand with puppies that are available for adoption.
Funds raised at the event will help offset the cost of training Grace and also help cover the expenses of sending both Megan and Dani to EDI camp next year.
Both families said they hope the fundraiser does more than just raise money, but also raise awareness about diabetes, particularly Type 1.
And Nicole said she’s looking forward to educating people about diabetic alert dogs.
“I can’t express how grateful I am for Grace,” she remarked.
“As much as we want to say that we rescued Grace, really she rescued us.
“She sleeps with Megan now and that gives me the peace I need so I can sleep at night too.”
For more information on Robin Ottomeier, people can visit her website, www.robinstherapydogs.com.