Every year in the United States, around 15,000 children are diagnosed with Type I Diabetes. It's an autoimmune disease where the Pancreas stops producing Insulin, the hormone that allows us to get energy from food. Doctors say the onset has nothing to do with diet or lifestyle. There's nothing we can do to prevent it, and right now, there's no cure.
Aside from technology, a specially-trained Diabetes Alert Dog is one way to know when blood sugar levels are too high or too low.
One Sioux Falls family made the investment and met their new dog, last October. Already, 'Clover' has done wonders to change their lives for the better.
At just 1.5 years old, Clover McKenzie, the fluffly Goldendoodle, does some pretty remarkable work.
"Whenever I'm above 150 or below 80, she'll come up and alert you on your knee," River McKenzie said.
River McKenzie, 6, was diagnosed with Type I Diabetes in March of 2013. Thanks to a news feature on Diabetes Alert Dogs, Bethany and her husband Matt knew of them before their son was even born.
"I was fascinated by it. We don't have anyone in our family with Diabetes. But somehow that story caught my attention. When River was diagnosed, of course I remembered that story, did some research to find a dog of our own," River's mom Bethany McKenzie said.
So they did.
"Clover was trained in Enid, Oklahoma by a company called Heartland Diabetes Alert Dogs. She was bred in Maine and lived with a puppy family for her first few months to get her socialized, used to people and noises. Her training was 9-10 months in Oklahoma," Bethany said.
It was a lot of in-home training but also making sure Clover was OK in public places. All the while, she was learning scents specific to a child with Type I Diabetes.
"Part of her training included anytime [River] was outside of those ranges, we would have him suck on a cotton ball and then freeze it and ship it to Clover. Having her find the scent sample... and she'd be rewarded," Bethany said.
When Clover was ready, last October, it was time to meet her new family in South Dakota.
"We were so excited. We had been in communication with our trainer who said "We'll land about 4:00 p.m., take Clover to the hotel, let her rest all night and we'll meet you the next morning". I said "no, you can't do this to me. I'm so excited to meet this dog!" He snuck in about a 30-minute introduction playtime for the two of them," Bethany said.
"River was speechless and he's not a quiet kid. When he saw this adorable fluff ball, he knew she was his. It was really a sweet moment."
Those moments kept getting sweeter; Clover was not a member of the family and would alert Bethany or Matt, by a simple touch of her paws, anytime River's blood sugar goes out of range.
"She's another teammate. If one of us is distracted or working with our other son, and River drops low and we just didn't think, in that moment, to check him, Clover is right there. We try not to rely on her completely. She is a dog and not a robot. There are times she might be tired, miss something, or there's another conflicting scent... But, she's an added layer of protection," Bethany said.
Clover's nose is trained to alert around the clock. In fact, River's blood sugar rose to a 205 while we were there so Clover alerted Bethany during our interview.
"She's 1.5 and really smart for a dog that's 1.5. Not other dogs that are 1.5 would be able to do this stuff," River said.
To honor the work she does, the McKenzie family with Clover, flew to Los Angeles for the CW's first-ever World Dog Awards in January.
"I got to see me on a big screen, got to go on stage and I said ' I love her she's my best buddy. And then we won a trophy," River said.
"Diabetes is a nuisance, a nuisance daily for us but his was one fun, positive thing that River has this great memory for life," Bethany said.
River is an active 6-year-old and has had many close calls since his diagnosis. Blood sugar levels dropping below 50 can mean seizure, or worse. Bethany says when technology can't always be trusted, Clover can.
"When River's on the basketball court, and I can't run out there and yell 'time-out!' and go check his blood sugar. [Clover's] there, letting me know in real-time that something's up, let's go check him," Bethany said.
Only about four months in, Clover - their good luck charm - is helping to keep this family happy and healthy one alert at a time.
"It's a love I can't describe. Because, she protects him like I do."
Once River was diagnosed with Type I Diabetes, Bethany started a page on Facebook to connect, blog and network with other families living with the same disease. It's called 'Full of Sugar: My Dude With Diabetes'.