By RENEE WEBB
For a Mater Dei School student, a new four-legged friend is not only life-changing but potentially life-saving.
Navi, a 15-month yellow Labrador Retriever from the Diabetic Alert Dogs of America out of Las Vegas, arrived at her new home in Sioux City last March.
“We knew it was going to be amazing from the moment she walked in the door and we first saw her,” said John Paul O’Connor, an eighth-grader at Mater Dei. “When she first came, my blood sugar was really high. She walked right through the door and we were all saying hi when she alerted me at our first face-to-face.”
Navi is trained to alert John Paul of his blood sugar highs and lows. The most common way she alerts John Paul is by putting her paw on him. If John Paul is sleeping, Navi will nuzzle him or even jump on the bed to try to wake him up. When the dog can’t wake him or get his attention, Navi is trained to go to the “pack leader” such as parent or teacher.
“She can smell my highs and lows through my saliva,” explained John Paul, who takes his service dog to school and nearly everywhere. “When my blood sugar gets out of range, you can tell she gets scared and is worried about me. She won’t fully relax until I am back in range.”
As a trained service dog, Navi is allowed the same rights as other trained service dogs such as seeing eye dogs according to the American Disabilities Act. In addition to going to school, she accompanies John Paul to restaurants, stores and even Mass.
John Paul pointed out Navi’s original name was Tinkerbell. He didn’t like that name but liked the idea of the name being a fairy. He chose Navi because that is the fairy in the videogame Legend of Zelda. In that game, the fairy gives the alert “hey listen” louder and louder when the treasure is near.
Navi has found a home not only at the O’Connors but in the hallways and classrooms of Mater Dei.
Principal Mary Fischer pointed out that initially having the dog at Mater Dei was a big novelty, but they prepared for the new addition by having informative assemblies at both the Nativity and Immaculate Conception school campuses.
“We told the students Navi has a job to do and when she is doing her job, no one is supposed to touch her, look at her or pet her,” noted the principal, who said the trainer spoke at the assemblies. “The students are so interested and love animals to begin with, but when they see an animal doing a particular job and see such positive results – it is a learning experience for both students and teachers.”
While Fischer was uncertain how parents would react to having the dog in school, she said they have received overwhelming positive support. One Mater Dei parent has even opted to be put on a waiting list for a diabetic alert dog. The trainer said there are six dogs in the Sioux City area at this time.
To help the dog become acclimated with his routine at the school, when the trainer was in town they held an abbreviated class schedule so Navi could get used to walking from class to class with John Paul in a big group of people.
“Dogs in general like to know what is coming next,” said John Paul.
His mother, Melody O’Connor, explained prior to Navi’s arrival in Sioux City, the dog was trained in Las Vegas. When John Paul tested in specific blood sugar ranges, he had to saturate cotton balls with his saliva. These were sent to Las Vegas and were used to train the dog to identify the out-of-range blood sugar levels for John Paul.
Diagnosed with diabetes during the summer between fifth and sixth grade, Melody said it was one of John Paul’s doctors who suggested they might investigate the possibility of a diabetic alert dog.
While John Paul has a continuous glucose monitor, she pointed out they opted to get a dog for John Paul to add “another line of defense, a safety mechanism to make sure he doesn’t fall to dangerously low levels.” There were a few times in the past when her son would mute the monitor because it would beep during tests and then forget to turn volume back on.
With a bit of a sheepish grin, he said, “You can’t turn the dog off.” Navi is not only accurate but persistent if he doesn’t act. The dog usually alerts him several times each day.
There have also been times when the glucose monitor – which is tied to technology on the cell phone – errs due to phone updates.
“Most kids start having some sort of signs like feeling shaky to let them know they are getting too high or too low,” said Melody, who is the school librarian. “Unfortunately, John Paul never developed those warning signs. He doesn’t realize he is low until his is behind.”
Once Navi alerts John Paul, the dog doesn’t sit back and relax until he has taken some measure to rectify the high or low blood sugar. For highs, oftentimes some water will often do the trick or he may have to add some insulin to his port. For lows, he will snack or drink some juice. While continuous highs over long periods of time are not good, the O’Connors explained the lows pose the most danger. That’s why the addition of Navi is so valuable.
Navi does spend most of his time working, but he has at least an hour everyday to play. When the dog’s vest comes off, she knows she can play – which is nice for not only John Paul but for his two younger siblings.
When John Paul heads to Bishop Heelan High School next year, he plans to take Navi.