By Tom Larson, Sun Tribune
Earle Brown was sitting behind the backstop at a youth baseball field, enjoying his son's game, when suddenly his Golden Retriever, Belle, began to gently nudge him. Brown blew it off. Belle nudged him again and again, and Brown finally relented.
But instead of taking the insistent dog off for a bathroom break, Brown checked his blood sugar.
Belle was telling Brown, a Type 1 diabetic, that his levels were getting perilously low.
Belle is a service dog trained by Hearing and Service Dogs of Minnesota, and by field trainers like Sarah Granger, a veterinary technician at the Morris Veterinary Clinic.
Since its inception in 1987, Hearing and Service Dogs of Minnesota have raised, trained and donated free of charge hundreds of dogs to aid people who are deaf, hard of hearing, disabled or suffer from other chronic medical problems, like Brown.
"It was just hearing dogs at first, and most of the dogs they got from Twin Cities pounds," Granger said. "They were taking dogs on death row, basically, and giving them an important purpose."
From training dogs to aid people with hearing problems, HSDM has progressed to service dogs for people with physical disabilities and, now, to special skills dogs that can aid people like Brown, who cope with diabetes or seizures, and dogs trained to aid people with autism, Granger said.
More than 200 volunteers and dozens of staffers prepare the dogs for their work. On average, it costs about $28,000 to get a dog and client "graduated." And the clients all receive their dogs free of charge.
"There are a lot of great people involved," Granger said.
HSDM prefers pure-bred dogs - labs, shepherd and retrievers -- so they have a better handle on its history, but notes that 50 percent of its dogs come from local animal shelters.
Once selected as a prospect, at about eight to 10 weeks of age, the dogs are sent to "puppy raisers," volunteers who take the dogs into their homes, socialize them and pay for their food and care, Granger said.
"They take them everywhere and do everything so that every experience in the world, the dog is accustomed to it," she said.
The dogs live with the "puppy raisers" for about a year, and then are sent to the HSDM facility in New Hope for specialized training. They learn to perform such tasks as pushing handicapped-accessible door-opener plates, open and close doors, push door bells and elevator buttons and retrieve phones.
The dogs are then matched to clients, and field trainers like Granger spent countless hours and drive thousands of miles working with clients and dogs. They are brought out into the public, learn how they are loaded and unloaded from vehicles, how to meet and greet people.
The dogs then must pass a five-point home skills test. Once approved, the dog's "puppy raiser" then presents it to a client at a graduation ceremony, Granger said.
Belle undergoes special scent training that she can use to detect when Brown's blood sugar levels are low. Brown, 50, is an Alexandria school teacher who exercises often and is quite active. But that healthy lifestyle also means Brown can suffer from dangerously low levels, and he said the disease has left him unable to sense when he needs to take action.
Brown said his students can tell - and will tell him - when he needs to check his levels. His wife is 100 percent correct, he said.
Brown first heard about special skills dogs from his mother's friend, who is diabetic and has a special assist dog.
He wasn't high on getting Belle at first, but the 3-year-old retriever has been with Brown for about nine months and is correct in detecting his levels about 30 percent to 40 percent of the time.
"She's not perfect yet but she's getting better all the time," Brown said. "It takes a year, year and a half for them to really get good at it. Overall, it's been a good thing."
While they are working dogs, the training and their duties are based on fun, Granger said.
"What could be better if you're a dog?" Granger said. "They hear an alarm clock. They get to jump on the bed, lick their owner, they get a treat, they get to go outside, and then they get breakfast. All dogs seem like they love to learn - they want to do good. They want to please their owners."
The process isn't magic, however. Clients need to continually work with their dogs to learn new, personalized skills, and then to maintain the progress.
"It's sometimes difficult to keep up with the training," Brown said. "But it's not Belle's fault if she misses something."
And that's why field trainers like Granger are so important. She was with Brown and Belle at his son's baseball game, and after noticing Belle's reaction, Granger insisted that Brown check his levels.
"Sarah's a great field trainer," Brown said. "She's very knowledgeable and she makes it fun. But she keeps you in line and she's not afraid to tell you about it when you're not."