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SDA seeking help from diabetics

John M. Steiner / The Sun Annie Strickland, senior administrative coordinator for Service Dogs of America, sits with 1-year-old Charlie, an English cocker spaniel, which is in training for SDA’s diabetic alert program. SDA is seeking saliva samples from diabetics whose blood sugar level is at 70 in order to help train its service dogs for placement with diabetics.

Service Dogs of America, the only accredited service dog school in North Dakota, is seeking the help of Type I and Type II diabetics to aid in the specialized training of its dogs, according to Shelley Nannenga, development director.

“Our program cannot continue without saliva samples given by diabetics,” Nannenga said. “We need as many as we can get, at least 20 right now.”

Service dogs at SDA, which is located in Jud, are trained in three different specialized areas: mobility assistance, emergency medical response, which includes diabetic alert and seizure response, and post-traumatic stress disorder, which includes traumatic brain injuries.

A service dog is defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act as a dog that performs a task for the benefit of a person with a disability, Nannenga said.

Service dogs that are trained in diabetic alert can sense the ketones in a diabetic’s breath, which would alert the dog that the diabetic’s blood sugar is low and to act appropriately by placing its paw on its human partner, by pushing a button, by bringing the partner the phone or medication, said Annie Strickland, senior administrative coordinator at SDA.

According to, a ketone is a chemical substance that the body makes when it does not have enough insulin in the blood. When ketones build up in the body for a long time, serious illness or coma can result.

“When a diabetic’s blood sugar drops to 70,” Strickland said, “it typically starts plummeting. They (diabetics) can become hypoglycemic, which is a critical point. It typically begins with the sweats, nausea and confusion and can lead to unconsciousness and possibly a coma.”

Nannenga said SDA has placed some service dogs with diabetics in the past, typically labradors, but it is now beginning a new program using cocker spaniels.

“Research has shown that cocker spaniels are better at picking up on ketones more accurately than other breeds,” she said.

The new program currently has four cocker spaniels being trained in diabetic alert, Strickland said.

“They began their training when they were less than a week old before their eyes and ears were open,” Strickland said. The puppies’ trainer held a cotton ball with a sample on it from someone with a blood sugar of 70, and the four who reacted the most to the scent were chosen to be trained, she said.

SDA is looking for saliva samples from diabetics whose blood sugar is at 70 in order to have samples for training the dogs. Strickland said that SDA has special containers with cotton swabs which hold someone’s saliva whose blood sugar is at 70. The samples must be handled properly by being put in the freezer directly after the sample is given. Following the directions supplied to diabetics by SDA is important, she said.

Nannenga said samples are only good for two weeks, and SDA is willing to pick them up from participants.

Strickland cautioned diabetics not to make blood-sugar levels low intentionally for SDA’s program. She said SDA is looking for diabetics whose blood sugar level drops periodically simply because they have the disease.

Nannenga said SDA’s mission is to train and certify service dogs for individuals with disabilities. She said SDA’s service dogs’ training is customized to individual needs. Its vision is to see a society where disabled individuals are able to fully participate in social, educational and occupational opportunities, she said.

This year, Nannenga said SDA expects to place 20 to 30 dogs with people with a variety of disabilities. It now has 24 dogs in its program, plus dogs in a foster care program.

“We have dogs all over,” she said.

SDA has placed 400 service dogs since 1990, Strickland said. SDA was founded in 1989, and earned its 501(c)3 nonprofit status in 1992.

Canine Assistance Program

SDA’s Inmate Canine Assistance Program (ICAP) program, which utilizes inmates at the James River Correctional Center to help train service dogs, began in 2008.

Nannenga said the program includes nine dogs and 27 inmates who are involved in the training of service dogs, which is one of the jobs available to the inmates, Nannenga said.

“The program has been really successful,” Nannenga said. “It’s been very rehabilitative for the inmates. Being responsible for the dog they are training is like giving back to the community for them. Many of the dogs we’ve placed has been at ICAP.”

The inmates are trained by Danette Jensen, master trainer at SDA, mostly to do obedience training. Inmates take turns training dogs in different aspects, Nannenga said.

“It’s life changing for inmates,” she said. “There’s a lot of love going on in that place. One prisoner was able to choose this prison because he wanted to participate in this program. It’s one of the lowest-paying jobs inmates can have at the prison. He was there for attempted murder. He was so remorseful, he just wanted to do some good while he was serving his time.”

She said former and current inmates often send donations to SDA.

“It shows that they believe in the program,” she said.

Nannenga said SDA appreciates the work done through ICAP.

“With the inmates training the dogs,” she said, “it saves us many hours of training. The dogs get consistency in their day-to-day training, which is 24/7. It’s a huge benefit to have so many on board. It’s mutually beneficial.”

For more information on SDA’s diabetic alert program, call Strickland at (701) 685-5003 or email For more information on SDA, call Nannenga at (701) 685-5002, or visit www.servicedogsfo

Sun reporter Gail Gallagher can be reached at (701) 952-8453 or by email at ggalla