These pets are known as service animals.
Retailers should be aware of multiple reasons for pet ownership and be able to provide the right products and care for a service animal. Most people have heard of dogs for the blind and law enforcement dogs but recently, pets can also benefit anyone with anxiety, PTSD and even diabetes.
Mark Ruefenacht founded Dogs 4 Diabetics Inc., or D4D in 2004. However, it was in development long before then.
“I had been involved with Guide Dogs for the Blind as a volunteer in their puppy raising program for the last nearly 20 years,” he said. “I used to take guide dog puppies with me when I would travel to the East Coast. One particular trip, I had one of the puppies and I experienced low blood sugar during the night.”
Ruefenacht is an insulin-dependent diabetic.
“I don’t have any real recollection about what happened other than that the dog was by my side, insistent on me, until I was able to get up and check my blood sugar and make corrections,” he said.
After that event, Ruefenacht wondered if there was something a dog can do to help a diabetic.
“I researched this for five years before I did anything for Dogs 4 Diabetics,” he said. He began doing research about breath science. “I would research what happened with the breath when the blood sugar changed,” he said. “About three years later, I obtained a dog from Guide dogs for the Blind. They provided me with a dog named Armstrong with an exceptionally good nose and I was able to train him on my diabetes and low blood sugar. He was trained on both breath and sweat.”
Ruefenacht received help from other dog organizations and his healthcare provider at Kaiser Permanente.
“I got involved with other service dog organizations just to learn everything I could learn about a dog and how their noses worked,” he said.
Once he was able to train two dogs, he moved forward with starting the non-profit D4D.
“We have now trained over 100 dogs,” he said.
“Founding any type of non-profit is challenging in the sense that you have to put together a volunteer staff,” said Ruefenacht. “We had zero funding; everything was coming out of my pocket. It was challenging for me to fund the beginning of this and the research part of this.”
Ruefenacht then put together volunteers, found community support, got a non-profit status with the federal government, registered with the state of California and put together a board of directors.
Soon, he received enough funding to pay an initial four-person staff. Even today though, D4D still works mainly as a volunteer organization.
“At the same time, we also had to get a supply of dogs,” said Ruefenacht. “Puppy raising, as I knew from Guide Dogs for the Blind, was a complex process in order to get the dog well socialized and to have the right health and the right temperament. I did not want to go through that process.”
He made a landmark agreement with Guide Dogs for the Blind.
“It was the first time they had ever partnered with another organization,” said Ruefenacht. “They provided us our dogs and they continue to provide our dogs.”
“One of the main reasons they made this commitment is that Guide Dogs for the Blind is a large organization that is excellent at providing dogs to the visually impaired but we can use the same dog to prevent that visual impairment,” he said.
Therefore, D4D fits right into the mission of Guide Dogs for the Blind so when the dogs arrive, they are already trained.
“They are highly trained, well socialized, have the right temperament, etc. for public access under the Americans with Disabilities Act,” said Ruefenacht. “We can then add the additional scent-based training to them to detect when a diabetic is having a change in blood sugar.”
Money is still a big obstacle for D4D.
“We could have probably grown extremely fast had we had more funding,” said Ruefenacht. “That said, we have tried to be a very conservative organization and we always stay within our means. Both with the money that comes in the door and the dogs that come in the door and insuring that our volunteers and staff are able to meet the needs of the clients in the highest quality and safest manner.”
According to Ruefenacht, the funding comes from a combination of things.
“Most of the funding comes from private donations,” he said. “Those are just individuals who either write a small check or a large check.”
There are also corporate partnerships.
“For example, Lagunitas Brewing, Presidio Bank, Kohl’s and a number of different people who have provided funding over the years,” said Ruefenacht. “These corporate partnerships help us on a monthly basis type thing.”
“One of our biggest and longest corporate sponsorship, outside of Guide Dogs for the Blind, is Central Garden & Pet,” he said. “They’re our number one funder. We have the Nylabone Training Center here [in California].
According to Ruefenacht, Armstrong became the Nylabone dog. He’s on some of their packaging.
“We made an agreement and now they fund the rent for our Nylabone Training Center,” he said. “Nylabone and Central Garden & Pet and their subsidiary companies have been wonderful supporters of our program.”
That’s not all.
“They continue to support us with marketing ideas as well,” said Ruefenacht. “We have a fundraiser coming up where a percentage of all the Nylabone products sold through Pet Food Express is going to come to Dogs 4 Diabetics.”
The Placement Process
After Guide Dogs for the Blind trains a dog and provides it to D4D, they begin their blood sugar training at the Nylabone Training Center.
“We have a placement program so diabetics can do a short application on our website which gives us some basic information about them and then they do a longer application that includes things like a doctor’s letter, references and things like that,” said Ruefenacht. “They go through that process then we select the clients we think would be best suited to work with our dogs.”
According to him, part of that selection process includes the fact that they manage their diabetes.
“Some diabetics come to us and they think the dog is going to be a tool that will save them from their diabetes when in fact it will not,” said Ruefenacht. “You have to have some control of your diabetes in order for the dog to be an efficient and effective tool. The dog is not going to be a fix for diabetes.”
One of the biggest criteria that D4D has is that clients will be able to work safely with the dog. The other criteria is that clients have managed their diabetes at a level that the dog can be effective.
For those who don’t manage their diabetes or otherwise meet D4D’s criteria, there is a special program called TypeYOU to help clients become eligible.
“We assist our clients in preparing to receive a dog through unique support programs such as our TypeYOU,” said Ruefenacht. “Most of them move onto get a dog once they get better management of their diabetes.”
D4D has extensive follow up services once a dog has been placed.
“It is not about just getting a dog,” said Ruefenacht. “It is about the continued follow up support to help ensure that the dog is still working.”
Because of this, D4D has a limited service area in order to remain successful for the client.
“Much like law enforcement dogs who have to do weekly or monthly recertification of their scent work, these dogs are also doing scent work,” said Ruefenacht. “They have to be constantly reinforced to their training in order to continue to be successful with the client.”
Continued Growth and the Future
“We have placed over 100 dogs through Dogs 4 Diabetics,” said Ruefenacht.
Part of the mission statement at D4D is “helping to set standards on an international basis.”
“I have had the opportunity to travel around the world working with different international service dog programs and assisting them in starting these types of programs in other countries as well,” said Ruefenacht. “We recognize that right now, there are no standards for this.”
Part of Ruefenacht’s goal is to promote standards of safety, ethics and integrity to all programs and individuals who are training dogs to detect and alert on changing blood sugars.
There is also a new initiative to begin training dogs on type II diabetics.
“Historically, we have only worked with type I diabetics but we are now starting to work with type II diabetics who manage their diabetes through insulin,” said Ruefenacht.
Ruefenacht believes that given that the cells can be isolated, dogs could probably detect any human disease in the body.
“We’ve scratched the surface with diabetes,” he said. “If we can continue to scratch the surface, I think that there is more and more the dog can do. We are going to continue to see the evolution of dogs in partnership with humans.”