It was love at first lick.
When Emily Stakely was handed her new companion on Monday, a chocolate Labrador puppy named Skittles, her first reaction was a bit standoffish.
But it didn’t take long for the 6-year-old daughter of Rufus and Tracy Stakely to warm up to her new friend. They were chasing each other around the house within minutes of introduction.
However, this is no ordinary girl-meets-dog story.
Because Skittles is no ordinary dog. He’s a medical wonder, actually, a lab who is part of a Diabetic Alert Dog program in Mount Pillar, Va.
Emily is a Type 1 insulin-dependent diabetic and has been since she was 3 years old. “She probably doesn’t remember not being diabetic,” Tracy said. Emily endures 15 to 20 finger sticks a day to insure her sugar isn’t too high or too low. That ends now because of a pooch with a super nose who can detect when sugar levels are out of whack.
Warren Retrievers trains these special dogs to recognize fluctuations in the blood sugar levels of Type I and Type II diabetes. These dogs are trained to alert or tell (think “Lassie”) the diabetic, or a family member, that the diabetic’s blood sugar is going low or high.
The service dog comes with a price tag of a new car. Ready for sticker shot? The cost is $18,875.
The company asks for a $1,000 down payment and the rest within the following two years. Here’s the other part of the story that’s not ordinary: Rufus and Tracy raised $20,000 in three months.
“This is a community dog,” said Rufus, who said more than 250 individuals or businesses donated funds. “From the very first day the checks started rolling in. It makes me feel good. Ashland is a good place to live.”
Rufus did most of the fundraising, his wife said. “I think he missed his calling,” she joked.
Donations were small and large, ranging from $5 checks to $1,000 checks. Rufus and Tracy were overwhelmed by a caring community that reached out to them in a time of need.
“We figured two years of income tax (returns), selling tickets, bake sales, anything else we could do,” said Tracy, who sold snacks where she works at Pathways.
Rufus, who was a contractor before suffering a debilitating injury at his home nine years ago, went door-to-door in his quest to raise the money. One thing that helps is the organization is 501(c) (3) so contributions made are tax deductible.
“I went to every door selling tickets, went to all the (service) clubs, I even went to the funeral homes,” Rufus said. “You do whatever you can when it’s your daughter’s health at stake.”
Tracy’s father, Stewart Atkinson, did much the same in his hometown of Staunton, Va. He collected proceeds from a Longaberger Basket Bingo event and also asked the service clubs there for some assistance.
Rufus said he was sure the money would come in eventually but admitted some surprise at it all coming in three months.
“I wasn’t worried, not at all,” he said. “I’m pretty well known in the community. It’s the best thing we could do for her at the time.
“He’s my relief, he’s my guardian angel. I checked her sugar at 1:30 (in the morning) and again at 4:30. This dog gives us some rest.”
There’s still a lot to learn, which is why Guardian Angel trainer Cheri Campbell will be in the area until Thursday. She will be teaching the Stakelys about Skittle’s habits and showing them what needs to be completed with his training.
The dogs are temperament/scent tested at seven weeks old and the training begins based on the client’s individual needs. Tracy learned about the dogs from a support group online.
“We don’t have a lot around here along the lines of diabetic support groups,” he said.
Skittles, who is about 13 weeks old, will go everywhere that Emily goes, including school, shopping and eating at restaurants.
Campbell said the community has to be educated on the service dog as well. For example, the first response is for someone to come up and pet the dog. But Campbell said they need to explain that Skittles is a working dog and cannot be distracted from his job.
“People think they can come up and pet him but that’s not the case,” she said. “You need to ask and I say judge it on a case-to-case basis.”
Skittles could also detect another diabetic who was having a problem. “That happens,” Campbell said.
The Stakelys took Skittles to the Central Fire Station on Monday afternoon to introduce him to firefighters because he eventually will be able to dial 911. They will take him to Emily’s school, the Lifelong Learning Center, today to meet with students. Skittles will have a vest that designates him as a service dog, she said.
Campbell has been working with Skittles almost since birth. He comes ready to obey commands for sitting, standing, some leash-walking and some house-training. But, mostly, he comes equipped with an amazing nose that knows no equals. Here’s how she described his ability:
“To put it in perspective, take a teaspoon of sugar and put it in your iced tea. You and I could smell the sugar. Take that same teaspoon of sugar and put it in an Olympic-sized swimming pool and he can smell the sugar, even mixed with all the chlorine.”
When Emily has highs or lows, Skittles will alert by either pawing, licking or “a variety of other ways,” Campbell said. “We’ll be showing them that over the next couple of days.”
The trainer said she will be overloading the Stakelys with information on the service dog in the next three days. “About 80 percent of it gets a call back,” she said. “It’s an overwhelming amount of information.”
The trainer will take weekly calls and be back every 90 days to make sure everything is working out, she said.
The Stakelys will still have to insure the dog, which has a lifespan of 12 to 15 years, since it is such a large investment. Also, they put a chip in him on the chance that he would get lost.
The Stakelys already have two older pound dogs that Emily adores, but this lab puppy will be her best friend and a medical alarm. He will sleep in her bed and be with her constantly, Tracy said.
Campbell said Skittles is “a very outgoing dog with shy moments,” which Tracy said matches her daughter’s personality almost perfectly.
Money is still being collected and it will go directly toward care for Skittles, including his veterinarian bills. Anyone wishing to make a tax deductible donation can call Rufus at (606) 547-5442, Tracy (606) 547-5443 or send a check made out to Guardian Angel Service Dogs to 2511 Holt Street, Ashland KY 41101.
Learn more about the program at warrenretrievers.com
MARK MAYNARD can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2648.