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Canine Companion

Unique service dog to assist North Idaho teen

By Colin Anderson

Photo Courtesy by Carson Magee

Since being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes (T1D) at the age of 8, Carson Magee has devoted much of his young life to bringing awareness about the condition to the masses. He’s conducted fundraisers by unicycling long distances; invented technology that helps others like him; and even lobbied from North Idaho to Boise to Washington DC, securing funds and awareness days on behalf of the thousands of children across the nation dealing with T1D.

Unlike Type 2 diabetes which can often be managed with diet, exercise and medication, there is no cure for Type 1. People like Carson need insulin pumped in or injected many times a day in order to survive. This means constant monitoring of insulin levels throughout the day and night. Most T1D patients wear a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) and, while very reliable, it’s a technology that can still fail, which could lead to Carson having a seizure—or worse.

Carson is now 17 years old and entering his senior year at Coeur d’Alene High School. Since his diagnosis his mother has been by his side, helping him maintain proper insulin levels, especially during the night. Carson plans on attending college upon graduation and, like most his age, would prefer not have his parents crash in the dorms with him. So when the time comes to leave home, instead of bringing his mom, he’ll instead be bringing his DAD.

Lily Grace has trained service dogs for more than 30 years. These include emotional, mobility and autism support animals. But since the early 2000s she has specialized in training diabetic alert dogs (DAD). “In 2002, I started putting videos up on the internet,” explained Lily. “I had to convince people it was real, and after a few years it was no longer just educating people but had become widespread acceptance.”

Lily moved to Sandpoint about three years ago with her eyes on retirement, and this year she planned on one more litter of pups before calling it a career. The last litter was supposed to contain five puppies, but to Lily’s surprise the final count ended up being nine; several more than she was looking to train. Training starts at just three days old, and because of the amount of time it takes to fully train a diabetic alert dog, their cost can run into the many thousands of dollars. “Families often put on fundraisers to get one,” says Lily. “It’s a huge investment, not just monetary but your time and commitment as well.” Carson had heard about these dogs since he was very young but, like many, the cost was a big obstacle. That and his only previous pet experience was raising a goldfish. Carson’s mother Fondra had been in contact with Lily prior to the litter being born, which had opened the door. After meeting Carson, Lily was quickly convinced he had the work ethic and commitment to raise one of these dogs and offered Carson a puppy free of charge. “I can always get a gut feeling, and I just know when it’s gonna be a right match,” says Lily. “I knew he would be a great person to have one of these dogs and following through. He’s very steady, dependable, and you know he can take this on.”

With school closed in March, Lily knew Carson would have the time needed to properly train his new dog, a Goldendoodle/Yellow Lab he has named Capo, and she began laying out detailed training from afar. The first steps of training a DAD are very similar to any puppy class. The dog is exposed to many different odors from humans, animals and environments, which help build the neuropathways from the nose to scent receptors in the brain. Next the diabetic scent is added. To do this Carson places cotton balls in his mouth when his blood sugar is both high and low. The balls are then placed inside tins with holes poked into the top. Capo is then encouraged to paw at the high or low scent and is rewarded when he paws the correct tin.

“At 11 weeks he was already alerting me by pawing at me, which is pretty impressive for a dog that just learned not to pee in the house,” laughs Carson.

“From here it’s all about click and reward,” explains Lily. “We build it up so that they absolutely love the odor.”

Capo’s next steps are obedience and being comfortable in crowded spaces. Carson teaches him all the basic commands and takes him to the mall, grocery stores and restaurants so he can get used to being around people and noise. He likens much of the experience to being a new parent. “It’s like raising a new baby,” he says. “Realizing I’ve done something and watching Capo grow has been a very fun experience.”

If in-person classes resume this fall, Carson will bring Capo to school with him. At first, Capo will go for a couple hours each week and will progress to longer days. Meanwhile, Carson continues to send videos and receive coaching from Lily. “At first it seemed unattainable to train a service dog, but it’s cool to have someone coach me through all the training,” says Carson.

Lily knew it would be a challenge for Carson but also noted that everything just fell into place for him. “I’ve found kids Carson’s age, their brains are like sponges, they learn very quickly. When COVID hit at the same time and with him home instead of school, it was a perfect time for him to train all day at home,” she says.

For Lily, it’s two more puppies and then she’s calling it a career. She’s very happy to have been able to help such a deserving young man, and like the many T1D patients who’ve received her dogs over the years, she continues to encourage using everything available to them to stay healthy. “Monitors can go off and the dog is an added tool, but it’s important to listen to all of your tools. Once you are out on your own, it’s just you, your dog and your CGM,” she said.

While Carson hasn’t decided exactly what school he wants to attend, Capo will ultimately be going with him. Carson will continue to wear the continuous glucose monitor but says Capo is already alerting him to spikes before the wearable technology. “He’s the best tool I’ve had since being diagnosed,” he says.

Seeing a child leave the house is both a proud and worrisome time for all parents. For Carson’s mom Fondra, knowing he will have Capo by his side will provide some comfort during the nights she is no longer by his side. For Carson, it’s one more tool that helps him to live life to the fullest. “The CGM helps me a lot, but it’s another device that can fail. Eventually Capo will wake me up (when I need insulin) and will be more precise and more accurate.”

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