Life-changing: Dog helps in struggle with Diabetes

by Sonja J. Keith
Callie Sterling photos

Service dog Roman has become a best friend to the Ripley Family and so much more.

Roman can sense a sudden drop or increase in blood sugar, which is particularly important to Kerri and Curtis Ripley, whose 2-year-old son Deacon has Type 1 Diabetes.

“It’s been life changing and amazing,” Kerri said.

Roman arrived in the 501 on July 7. Although he has only been with the family for six weeks, the beautiful black Labrador retriever has already demonstrated his keen sense of smell and persistency. “On delivery day, he arrived and started alerting,” Kerri said. “I thought, ‘Wow. This is real. This is actually happening.’”

In preparation for Roman, the couple showed Deacon several photos in advance of his arrival. Within a few days, Deacon was petting and rough housing Roman, who was good-natured. The two have already meshed, which Kerri describes as “amazing.”

“It’s really sweet,” Kerri said. “Roman really likes Deacon.”

A trainer spent four days with the family, watching their regular routines, to help Roman become acclimated. Kerri said the goal is for Deacon’s blood sugar to be between 100 and 200.

In one respect, Roman is a normal family pet, but he’s also a dog with a special purpose. “He does an amazing job for us in this struggle,” Kerri said. “It is a struggle day in and day out. He shares the burden of it.”

Roman was raised on a farm in Virginia and began training when he was 7 or 8 weeks old. Diabetics provide saliva on cotton balls, taken when their blood sugar is up or down, for use in training the service dogs, according to Kerri. When a particular scent is detected, the dogs are trained to “alert” so the appropriate steps can be taken to bring the blood sugar within an acceptable range.

Roman acts agitated and uneasy, and paws Kerri or Curtis if there is a problem with Deacon’s blood sugar or even before the problem occurs.

“It’s mind blowing. He knows when it is more serious than others,” Kerri said. “He has brought a lot of peace of mind to us.”

In addition to life at home, Roman has made outings to restaurants, stores and churches to practice public access. “He did great,” Kerri said. “He would even alert in public.”

Kerri said it is hard when children and adults want to pet Roman and he’s standoffish. His job is helping Deacon, so interaction with others in public is discouraged.

Kerri already has several “just trust the dog” stories. On one occasion, she and Curtis were at a restaurant and had taken Roman with them to practice his public access when he began alerting. Deacon was with his grandparents, several miles away. “Roman wouldn’t settle down. He was not comfortable and kept pawing. He even crawled up in my lap,” Kerri said, explaining that no one at the restaurant appeared to be diabetic, so they ruled out that it was a false alert.

Kerri was skeptical but texted her mother-in-law and told her that Roman had alerted and asked if she would check Deacon, whose blood sugar was out of range. “Roman caught the low three and a half miles away!”

While dogs can typically smell up to a mile away, Kerri also thinks Roman is developing intuition when it comes to Deacon’s blood sugar as well as a special bond with her son. “He is truly something.”

On another occasion, Deacon had a tummy ache and his blood sugar was extremely high at 370. They told Roman they were “fixing it” but had difficulty getting the level down. “Roman kept alerting. We got it in range, but Roman was still alerting. He was beside himself.” Deacon’s level was 141 and they planned to check it again in about 20 minutes, but in the meantime, he vomited.

When checked, his blood sugar was 69.

“Roman knew. He knew he was dropping.”

Kerri added that one time she and Roman were leaving their house to pick up pizza, but he refused to get in the family’s van. He alerted twice and was insistent that they check on Deacon, whose blood sugar registered 262.

Kerri said that Roman has alerted and prompted the couple to check Deacon’s blood sugar at times when they customarily wouldn’t have. “You do everything right and Diabetes can throw you a curve ball.” She explained that they could feed Deacon the same thing one day with no change in blood sugar, but another time, there could be a change. “There’s no rhyme or reason to what Diabetes does or is going to do. It’s a monster, honestly . . . It’s been a comfort to have Roman.”

By catching a sudden drop or increase early, adjustments can be made to better manage the disease, reducing or eliminating stress on Deacon’s body, Kerri points out. Complications from Diabetes range from blindness and kidney damage to heart disease.

Kerri considers Roman an important team member in her family. “Diabetes is constantly hanging over your head, but with Roman it feels like a little bit less all on you.” He alerts between eight and 10 times a day, sometimes more. “Every alert is amazing.”

While he has missed some alerts — probably due to fatigue from a tiring day — all of his alerts have been accurate. “He has alerted like a rock star,” Kerri said. “He has been awesome.”

While every day includes training for Roman, he is also a “normal” family pet. He is playful, enjoys fetch and loves to cuddle. “But he does his job,” Kerri said. “He’s always got his mind and his eye on his boy, Deacon.”

Roman is smart and has even been trained to retrieve the meter used to check Deacon’s blood sugar level. “It is amazing how fast he catches on,” she said. “He’s super, super smart.”

Kerri finds it difficult to adequately describe what Roman has meant to the couple and their son. “He means so much to this family. He’s saved Deacon’s life and avoided so many tragedies,” she said. “I can’t imagine what is to come. He’s been so awesome.”

The 76-pound dog will be a year old Sunday, Sept. 28, and is still growing. Kerri describes him as being laid back but goofy.

While the family has focused on training and integrating Roman into their home, Kerri will soon be working again on fundraising.

The family has raised about half of the $25,000 needed to purchase Roman. “We knew he’d come and help, but to this extent, we didn’t . . . He’s helped us cope with a stressful situation easier and with more grace — the peace of mind he’s brought.”

The family is appreciative of the community’s interest and support as well as the donations that have been received.

“I know we’ll raise the money. Every dollar has been provided by God,” she said, adding that she is in awe of God’s creation — a dog who can provide lifesaving help. “He made an amazing animal,” she said. “Roman’s an amazing blessing.”