Paws that save: Kingsport man trains diabetic alert dogs

Marci Gore • Aug 7, 2013 at 1:55 PM

Bill Creasy was diagnosed as a type 2 diabetic in 2000 and says he used to worry about what would happen to him if his blood sugar dropped too low.

Creasy says, ideally, his blood glucose level should be between 70 and 120.

“Seventy is the start of the low end. But I’ve been down in the 40s. It’s the weirdest feeling. You can’t walk. You can’t see. You’re on the edge of a coma. I live alone. I could go into a coma and die,” he said.

But thanks to his diabetic alert dog, Hawk, Creasy says he sleeps a lot better at night.

Hawk is a 4-year-old Belgian Malinois. Creasy trained Hawk to alert him when his blood sugar drops below 70.

“I can’t tell you how many times Hawk’s woken me up. Hawk knows when I’m on the way down. The body starts giving off some kind of chemical or scent when this happens. He’ll alert me if I’m dropping, even if I’m driving. There’s no warning when you start to drop. But trained diabetic alert dogs catch it. Science can’t even explain this,” Creasy said.

Creasy says he’s always had an interest in training dogs, including protection training, American Kennel Club (AKC) obedience competition and hunt tests. He also trained, trialed and titled hundreds of dogs during his 20-year involvement with hunt tests and field trials and judged trials throughout the eastern United States until the mid-2000s.

Today, his primary interests lie with training diabetic alert and service dogs. Creasy is on the board of directors of the Diabetic Alert Dog Alliance.

Creasy purchases puppies to train at about 8 to 10 weeks of age from Chilbrook Kennels in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. To get the scent, diabetic alert dog trainers use cotton rolls, similar to the ones dentists use, and small glass vials.

“I ask people I know who are diabetic to take these cotton rolls that I give them and swab them around in their mouth when their blood sugar drops below 70. Then I give them glass vials to put the swabs in. They double bag it in sandwich bags for me, write on it what their reading was and put it in the freezer. I go and collect the samples. Then when I’m training a dog, I dump the cotton out of the vial into a little tin can with small holes drilled into the top of it so the dog can smell it,” Creasy said.

The puppies are already familiar with the scent of low blood sugar when Creasy brings them to his Kingsport home.

“These dogs are started on the scent before their eyes are open. They’re going to the smell of this off their mothers while they are nursing. The scent from the cotton roll is put in a spray bottle and sprayed on the moms while they’re away from the puppies. When the puppies go to eat, they smell the scent on her. So this scent is put in their heads before they even open their eyes. They’re associating it with food. And the training has started,” Creasy said.

The dogs are trained to “alert” to this scent of the low blood sugar. An “alert” can be anything from a nudge, a bark or a touch of the paw, depending on what the person getting the dog wants. Hawk puts his paw on Creasy to “alert” him of a dropping blood sugar.

“Even if I knock [his paw] off he will keep putting it back until I acknowledge that he has alerted. He gets lots of praise when he alerts and after I get my [blood sugar] stable I will play ball with him. That makes him happy,” Creasy said.

Creasy uses positive reinforcement to train his dogs. Positive reinforcement training uses praise and/or treats to reward the dog for doing something you want him to do. Creasy says this reward makes dogs more likely to repeat the behavior. In addition to the “alerts,” dogs can also be trained to get candy bars, drinks, snacks and medical bags.

Recently, Creasy placed a black Lab named Jackpot in his new home. Jackpot is now with a Kingsport teenager whom Creasy says he will work with on a weekly basis for several months and then on a monthly basis for two more years to make sure she and Jackpot are working well together.

Creasy sells diabetic alert puppies ages 2 to 6 months that have been started on the scent for $6,000 — or $250 a month for two years. A fully trained diabetic alert dog sells for $18,000.

Creasy prefers his dogs be placed with children and they must be at least 12 years of age.

“Kids are more mature at that age and old enough to know if they really want it. It’s a lot of responsibility. It’s a huge relief to the parents to have this dog. They have to always get up during the night to check on their children. They can get these dogs and then the parents can rest easier at night. And as the children get older, they can take their dogs to college with them,” Creasy said.

Creasy, who has now trained four diabetic alert dogs, says people ask him if it’s difficult to give the dogs up after you’ve spent so much time with them and bonded with them.

“When you match up a dog with a child and you see their eyes sparkling and they’re smiling, and their parents are smiling, that’s enough reward right there,” he said.

For more information, visit Creasy’s website at http://www.69hdflh.com/ or email him at srt.k9hawk@gmail.com.

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