When 9-year-old Roman Mack returns home from school, his black Labrador retriever, Otto, is always waiting anxiously for his return. Ever since the two met last year, they’ve been inseparable, said Roman’s mother, Morgan Frakes.
Otto follows Roman everywhere. When Roman is at his Lewiston home, Otto is tailing him. When he’s at soccer practice, Otto watches, waiting for Roman to return to his side. As Morgan talks, her son sits cradling Otto’s head and whispering to his dog.
“Really, he just followed (Roman) around right from the day we got him,” Morgan said. “It’s kind of crazy.”
In many ways, Otto and Roman’s story is typical of any child and his dog. But Otto is more than just a four-legged friend; Otto, a diabetic alert dog, is Roman’s guardian.
In February of last year, Roman was rushed to the pediatric intensive care unit at Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital in Spokane. There, he and his family would learn he had Type 1 diabetes, a chronic condition typically appearing in childhood where the pancreas produces little or no insulin.
What followed was a crash course in caring for her diabetic child, Morgan said, and months of adjusting to insulin shots and finger pricks for Roman.
“It’s kind of stressful sometimes,” Roman said. “Because you’re taking one thing, just straight to another.”
Morgan also had to get used to late nights as they worked to regulate her son’s blood sugar, she said.
“Those first couple of months, really, it’s like having a newborn again,” she said. “I have to wake him up and give him juice constantly to keep his blood sugars up.”
Since his diagnosis, Roman has used a continuous glucose monitor that provides alerts for low blood sugar. But relying on the monitor alone was stressful, Morgan said. The alerts woke her up the first few months, but after a while she started to sleep through them.
Diabetic alert dogs like Otto use their sense of smell to detect changes in their owner’s blood sugar levels. If Morgan sleeps through one of her son’s alert, Otto will come to wake her up. He’s also able to detect changes before the blood sugar monitor picks them up.
Diabetic alert dogs’ noses are also more sensitive than glucose monitors, said Mitch Bowen with Bowen Elite Service Dogs.
“The sensors can be 15 to 20 minutes behind what an actual blood sugar is,” Bowen said. “So that’s when a dog can be more accurate and even catch lows or highs before it happens.”
Morgan and Roman first met Mitch and Stephanie Bowen through their local nonprofit and diabetic support group the couple runs, Hometown T1D, after Roman’s diagnosis. The Bowens, who first started training diabetic alert dogs after their daughter Addy was diagnosed in 2018, brought a care package to the family’s door.
After seeing how Addy’s diabetic alert dog, an Australian labradoodle named Milo, helped her, the Bowens decided to start their own business to raise and train diabetic alert dogs. They train the dogs at their home near Lapwai.
“It’s been an amazing process, and an amazing gift that he’s been for Addy,” Mitch Bowen said. “And we knew that we wanted to give that to others.”
Roman’s dog, Otto, had previously been placed in a home that didn’t end up working for him and needed a placement where he could continue training with the Bowens and be an at-home alert dog.
The organization also gifted 23-year-old Koby Blunt, of Clarkston, a longtime member of Hometown T1D, a yellow Labrador retriever puppy named Tucker who will be trained as his diabetic alert dog.
That gift, said Koby’s mother, Kopper Blunt, will be a big step in helping him gain independence.
“He shares his readings with me, (so) I might be getting an alert saying his blood sugar is going low. And I don’t know if he’s aware of that or not,” she said. “So then that’s stressful for me and him, because I’m trying to get a hold of him, and he’s already aware and dealing with it, and doesn’t want me bothering him.”
Normally, total costs between the Bowens’ charges, breeder fees and other expenses can add up to around $30,000. But for Roman, the Bowens offered to place Otto at a reduced cost. After a GoFundMe covered around $4,200, Hometown T1D donated the rest of the funds, amounting to roughly $14,000, Morgan said.
The dogs are trained for months to detect high and low blood sugar levels with their specific owner’s scent, Stephanie Bowen said. Clients send in saliva samples taken during low and high blood sugar events, as well as samples from when they’re in the normal blood sugar range. Those are frozen, and sent overnight to the Bowens.
There, the dogs are trained to recognize the differences, and rewarded for alerting for high and low blood sugar.
After about two months, puppies are able to consistently pick up and alert based on those scents by pawing, or “booping” with their nose, Stephanie Bowen said. After that, the Bowens spend months reinforcing that training in different environments and times of day.
Morgan is also hopeful that Otto will help her son gain independence. In many ways, Roman’s Type 1 diabetes has complicated his life. In school, Roman ends up having to explain his condition to his classmates.
Some people, Roman said, don’t understand the difference between his Type 1 diabetes, which is a genetic condition that shows up early in life, and Type 2 diabetes, which develops over time and is lifestyle related. Sometimes he’ll even have to explain to classmates that he’s not contagious.
“One guy, he’s like, ‘Are you the guy who has rabies?’” Roman said. “I’m like, ‘It’s diabetes!’”
But having Otto, Morgan said, makes it easier for Roman to do what he loves — and gives her a sense of security for her son.
“It makes me feel a lot better just to know that, especially as Roman gets older and he’s going to be out doing more, and maybe not paying attention to his diabetes as much, that he has this dog that will always just be there to help him protect him,” Frakes said.
Sun may be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter at @Rachel_M_Sun. This report is made in partnership with Northwest Public Broadcasting, the Lewiston Tribune and the Moscow-Pullman Daily News.