Girl's Best Friend: Coach the Blood Glucose-Sniffing Dog
“Coach,” a blood glucose-sniffing dog, has been a lifesaver for Portsmouth City Councilor Stefany Shaheen’s daughter, Elle
At the state Democratic Party Convention in September, Portsmouth City Councilor Stefany Shaheen gleefully danced on stage before introducing a speaker. As the music blared to rev up the crowd, some observers wondered if the councilor may soon run for the governor’s seat once occupied by her mom, US Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. But Stefany has had a lot more than politics on her mind. The convention coincided with the release of her first book, “Elle & Coach: Diabetes, the Fight for My Daughter’s Life, and the Dog Who Changed Everything.” The deeply personal memoir focuses on her 16-year-old daughter Elle (pronounced “Ellie”) and her relationship with a yellow Labrador Retriever trained to detect when her blood sugar is dangerously high or low. The book will surely resonate with parents or caretakers of children living with any chronic health condition.
Most of us are familiar with guide animals, but dogs that can smell blood sugar aren’t as well known. Did this surprise you? We’re getting a much better understanding of what dogs can do. There are dogs that can detect cancer and sense when seizures are about to happen for people with epilepsy. In the case of diabetes alert, what they found is that dogs who were being trained for things like narcotics detection and search and rescue can pick up the scent that your body emits when your blood sugars are going high or low.
We’re a very technology-obsessed society focused on the latest gizmos and gadgets. Did you think an animal’s nose could change your life? We were very skeptical at first that a dog could make things better. From those 5 ½ years, I knew how tough it was to help Elle keep her blood sugars in range. She had been part of multiple clinical trials, she had tried insulin pumps and different monitors. At that point, we were desperate to try anything that might make a difference.
Does Coach completely replace Elle’s need to prick her finger for blood tests? Not at all. The beauty of what Coach can do is he can detect shifts in her blood sugar before she feels the symptoms. She still needs to test her blood sugar and take 8-10 shots of insulin a day, but Coach gives us the added protection of being able to catch the highs and lows before they are serious. He goes to school with her, to theatre rehearsals, dance classes, restaurants — wherever she goes.
Does that make Elle more popular in school? I think she would say that Coach is a “friend magnet” and classmates treat him like the school mascot.
What’s the biggest difference you’ve noticed in Elle before and after getting Coach? The close relationship between Elle and Coach has freed us up to become more like mom and daughter and less like nurse and patient. Elle is much more in command of her life now. As Coach’s trainer, she’s highly focused on the cues he is giving her rather than me always nagging her about when she last tested her blood sugar. It’s changed our relationship in a very positive way.
What’s the one message you hope readers get from your book? That you can find hope in the most unlikely places. By the time we found Coach, we had tried everything. We were losing hope that things were going to get better. Elle becoming a healthy, independent adult is not a scary proposition for us anymore. I hope everyone can relate to our story whether they have diabetes or not. Everyone has struggles of their own to deal with.
(“Elle & Coach” was co-written by NH author Mark Dagostino. Visit stefanyshaheen.com/elles-story.)