In a June 7, 2013, photograph, JoAnn Lasley sits with her 19-month-old service dog dog, Titus, in Knoxville. Titus is trained to sniff out the subtle change in odor when there's a sharp decline in Lasley's blood sugar. Associated Press photo.
POWELL, Tenn. — This beast is not only a looker. He’s a lifesaver.
People are drawn to this 19-month-old dog, with his regal bearing and coat of tight, curly black fur, like bees to flowers.
But don’t pet him, begs owner JoAnn Lasley of Powell.
That could derail his duty as a service dog.
Titus is a goldendoodle, or cross between a golden retriever and a poodle.
And because of his exquisitely sensitive sense of smell, he’s on a round-the-clock mission.
Lasley has insulinoma tumors, which flood her body with an excess of insulin, causing her blood sugar level to drop. If it gets too low, it could lead to a coma or death.
Titus can sniff out the subtle change in odor when there’s a sharp decline in blood sugar. That can happen, she said, as many as six times in a day.
Titus then alerts her by putting a paw on her knee, whether she’s awake or asleep.
It’s an urgent reminder, she said, to eat a snack. “I have to eat or I will bottom out. I will be really sick.”
This 92-pound watchdog is persistent. He’ll keep paw on knee until Lasley rouses and snacks or eats a glucose tablet.
Titus’ reward: a tidbit of a snack of his own.
Lasley said she first noticed her ailment about three years ago when she awakened shaking and sweating.
When her condition was diagnosed, she said her family doctor “asked me if my spiritual house was in order. That indicated to me this was really serious.”
She had tumors on her pancreas and on the major vein that routes blood from her legs back to her heart. Surgery, she was told, was too dangerous.
At first, she relied on a cumbersome — and painful — monitor to alert her. That system involves the insertion of a large needle into her abdomen.
A “tiny article” in a Saturday News Sentinel edition several months ago eventually led to Titus, Lasley said.
She learned about a woman in Middle Tennessee, Ann Walling, who launched a training program called Diabetic Alert Dogs — the Borderland Way.
Dogs of all types, mutts or those rescued from pounds, can be taught to perform this unique service, Lasley said.
Titus was already 10 months old and obedience trained when she purchased him in Blount County, she said.
Teaching Titus to be a unique service dog took months of relentless dedication.
“I decided if I was going to do this, I was going to do it right,” she said. “I was in a room with Titus all the time for two months.”
Finally, Titus began to alert Lasley even before her blood sugar monitor sounded. “He is a lot of work, but at 2 a.m. and my blood sugar’s dropping, he’s worth everything.”
Walling in an email said Lasley “has done an outstanding job of training Titus. He alerts reliably after a little less than a year.”
Now, Titus’ role as a service dog is second nature, Lasley said, and the two are tied together like a button to a shirt.
That’s where the no petting rule comes in. When Titus is out in public and wearing his blue service vest, he’s on the job and tuned into Lasley’s scent. If someone pets him, “he has their scent and not mine,” Lasley said.
With a handsome dog like Titus, people have a hard time not petting him, she said.
“I took him to Dollywood and just had to leave,” Lasley said.
“There are a lot of people that could use dogs like Titus,” she said. “I had a couple stop me in the grocery. The husband has diabetes and his wife stays awake at night checking on him. When the husband heard about the training program, he broke down in tears.”