Loyal Service

mvoorhis@sierrastar.comMarch 18, 2014 

Tioga, Bailey and Jackie attract a small crowd wherever they go — and together or separately, they go most places with the Becker family. The typical curious onlooker can be overheard saying, "I can't believe how well-behaved they are." They lie quietly beneath the desk at Jeremy's (father) financial planning office in Fresno — so quiet that clients aren't even aware of their presence. They attend church. They walk calmly beside the cart during shopping. They lie beneath tables at restaurants. They watch silently during music lessons. They remain mellow in crowds and stay focused on the person at their side. They are not aggressive with other dogs, small children or adults.

No matter the number of distractions — people scurrying past along the sidewalk, talking loudly in the parking lot, kids running, screaming and pointing, the dogs stay alert and zeroed in on that particular moment's task-at-hand. It's all part of the training, and for the Baileys, it's more than a hobby — it's a family business.

Tioga, 5 months, Bailey, 18 months, and Jackie, 14 months, are English Labradors being trained by the Beckers as Diabetes Alert Dogs (DAD). The Beckers first became aware of DADs during last year's JDRF Walk to Cure Diabetes at Woodward Park. It seemed a natural fit for the family of eight — especially since Wyatt, 10, was diagnosed with Diabetes six years ago.

"Having a son with Type 1 Diabetes, we quickly saw the peace that a DAD brings to a Type 1 individual or family," Alicia (mother) said. "Upon experiencing this benefit, we launched Duty Dogs to serve the needs of other diabetics in the management of their own diabetic journey."

It typically takes between 15 to 18 months to train the DAD, and the younger the training begins, the better. The process requires a lot of patience and is not only challenging, but time-consuming — especially when it comes to teaching the DAD to distinguish specific scents.

"It requires thousands of repetitions of presenting the scent and rewarding the dog for smelling it," Jeremy said. "Once they have the scent recognized, then we train them to constantly check back with us to see if they find that scent on us anywhere. If they find it, then they get a reward for their diligence."

Because of their heightened sense of smell, the DAD has the ability to actually alert the diabetic 20 minutes prior to the blood sugar dropping to low levels.

Along with her parents, 15-year-old Hannah has been training DADs for about seven months. However, Jeremy's experience in dog training goes back about 30 years, when he played the part of the "assailant" during training exercises for drug or police dogs.

The lead trainers have received individualized personal training from Debby Kay, one of the pioneers in the DAD community, as well as attended classes designed to assist trainers in understanding and implementing the skills needed in the training of DADs. The Beckers are also one of the founding members of a national alliance of DAD trainers and breeders.

It is Jeremy and Alicia's belief and hope that they are equipping their six children, all of whom are homeschooled, with the life skills necessary to operate a successful business. Because of this, from the oldest down to the youngest, all take part in the daily care of the dogs.

"We call the younger kids 'junior trainers,'" Hannah explained. "We may work with them one-on-one while training the dogs. They learn when to reward, when not to reward, how to groom, how to bathe, how to feed, and as they grow older and learn more, they will become one of the head trainers, also."

"According to the American Diabetes Association, an estimated 25.8 million Americans, or 8.3 percent of the population, have Diabetes," Alicia added. "Of that number, 5% have Type 1 Diabetes — the most severe kind. Those who have had the disease for decades can develop 'hypoglycemia unawareness,' or the inability to tell when their blood sugar is rapidly dropping. The lives of diabetics with this condition can be dramatically changed by a DAD."

The Beckers not only train, but are planning to breed their DADs. That way, they know the bloodlines.

"We chose the Labrador breed because within that breed, there are exceptionally equipped dogs who know how to work, have a good nose and are settled in their temperament," Jeremy said. "Obviously, not all labs fit this criteria, so we have specially chosen bloodlines specifically bred for this type of work."

"However, if someone already has a companion animal, we could train that dog, also," Jeremy added.

"It's so cool to see the rewards of the work," Hannah said. "The dogs are so smart, and it's amazing to see the difference it's made in Wyatt's life. When the dog does a live-alert, sometimes, I'll think to myself ... I did that ... I trained that dog to do that."

Details: DutyDogs.com or dutydogs.blogspot.com

Note: The JDRF Walk to Cure Diabetes will be held at Woodward Park, Mt. View Shelter in Fresno on Saturday, March 29. The event schedule is: 7 - 9 a.m., breakfast; 8 a.m., registration, entertainment and warm-up; 9:15 opening ceremony; 9:30, walk begins; 10, entertainment and lunch; 12:30 p.m., closing ceremony. This year, the Walk to Cure Diabetes events are expected to surpass the $120 million mark.

To register: walk.jdrf.org

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