Emma Brussell sighed deeply one rainy April day as she pressed her nose against the window in her Farmingdale living room. She was glued to that spot, waiting impatiently for a long-overdue Christmas gift: a dog — but not just any dog.
“They’re two minutes late!” Emma, 9, grumbled as she stood on her tiptoes to get a better look out the window.
She tracked every passing car like a red-light camera, registering her disappointment with a low mumble, a sigh and a glance down at the floor.
“Moooom! They’re supposed to be here already,” Emma said, turning to her mother, Kelly Brussell, whose patience had not run thin. “Can you ask them how far away they are? Can you? Can you call them? Can you ask what color car they’re in?”
“No, Emma. Just give them some time,” Brussell replied. “I’m sure they’ll be here soon.”
They would be Rufus, an 11-month-old, 50-pound yellow English Labrador retriever with a nose keen enough to detect symptoms of Emma’s diabetes, and his escort, trainer Ahmed Hassan, who were coming from Las Vegas.
Emma’s anticipation was understandable. She asked Santa for a diabetic alert dog two Christmases ago, unconcerned about the $15,000 price tag. She was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes — an autoimmune disease in which a person’s pancreas stop producing insulin, a necessary hormone used by the body to get energy from food — just two days after her third birthday.
Emma’s diabetes is genetic and cannot be controlled by diet or lifestyle changes. The fourth-grader must check her blood sugar levels before eating anything, at least five times a day. She uses two small wearable devices — an Omnipod insulin delivery system that allows wearers to fill it with insulin and attaches directly to their bodies, and Dexcom, a continuous glucose monitor that tracks blood sugar levels and is set up to beep if users’ blood sugar levels dip or rise above certain numbers.
But like all devices, sometimes they malfunction. If the Dexcom does, it doesn’t alert Emma or her family. Dangerous glucose levels if unattended could lead to coma or death.
That April morning, Emma wasn’t the only one anxious to meet Rufus. Her sister, Lily, 8, and the family’s 4-year-old terrier hound mix, Hannah, were also both giddy. Hannah seemed to know something big would happen soon and was pacing back and forth in her pink collar, barking more than usual, to which Emma sternly instructed, “Hannah, don’t bark again until Rufus is here.”
In response, Hannah licked Emma’s hand and barked again, and then there were shrieks.
“He’s here! He’s here!” Emma and Lily said in unison as they raced each other out the front door to greet Rufus and Hassan.
Emma rushed to pet Rufus, whose tail was wagging quickly as he snuggled up to her and sniffed her hands.
An extensive training
Diabetic alert dogs can provide warnings 15 to 30 minutes before problems show up in the blood, said Breanne Peeples, owner and dog trainer at the National Institute of Diabetic Alert Dogs in California.
“They have 220 million scent receptors and can sense when something is off very quickly by smelling a person’s body secretions, including saliva, sweat and breath,” she said.
Dogs trained to work as diabetic alert dogs are taught “scent work” and perform a series of activities in which they smell cotton balls containing the saliva of the client they are to one day alert.
Dogs trained at Diabetic Alert Dogs of America in Las Vegas, the for-profit organization that trained Rufus, complete an extensive training process of about eight months, time in which they acquire “scent” and “lifestyle” skills.
But not all canines are cut out for it, and about 10 percent of those trained to assist people with Type 1 diabetes flunk out of the program, said Christy Weaver, the group’s client services director.
“Such was the case with Journey,” said Weaver, referring to the dog that was to be Emma’s original companion. Journey was a slim-faced, 60-pound golden Labrador retriever who had already won Emma’s heart but was unable to make it through the last phase of the course, the scent training.
“When we got the call that Journey had failed, Emma was devastated,” Brussell said. “Her heart was just crushed. She threw herself on the couch and cried for half an hour, nonstop. It was just heartbreaking.”
Weaver said dogs that don’t pass all phases of the company’s training process are adopted by a preapproved list of people who want a well-behaved and house-broken dog.
Emma was then to wait another eight months for Rufus.
Acquiring either dog meant Emma needed to raise money to pay for them. She met the challenge by creating paintings and auctioning them on Facebook. She had raised almost $2,000 when two separate donors read a Newsday story about Emma’s effort and offered to pay the full cost for her alert dog, though they asked to remain anonymous. She used the money she had raised to create a nonprofit to help other children with Type I diabetes get their own alert dogs.
He’s her shadow
Diabetic Alert Dogs of America delivers about 12 fully trained dogs each month and has trained more than 600 dogs in the past decade.
“Rufus went through a three-step training program, which included basic obedience, public access and scent training,” said Weaver. “He roughly ran through 10 to 15 scent games or scent activities a day, as well as some at midnight, 3 a.m. and 6 a.m.; it was a priority for our company to replace the dog once Journey failed the course.”
Rufus has quickly pawed himself into Emma’s heart and has woven himself into the fabric of her every moment. He goes with her to school at Woodward Parkway Elementary School in Farmingdale (students chose the name Rufus), where he lies beneath her desk as she works on assignments, walks with her from class to class, joins her at special outings like dinner at the nearby Farmingdale Diner, and patiently waits for her on the sidelines while she plays softball.
He sleeps with her in her bedroom and has basically become her shadow, doting on her and following her wherever she goes.
“Generally our dogs can alert within 15 feet, so we always encourage people to have their dogs within arms’ distance,” said Weaver. “Because the closer the dog is to the handler, the more accurate and quicker the dog can be in alerting trending blood sugar levels,” she added, noting that “of course, it’s important to keep in mind that a diabetic alert dog is a complement to a continuous glucose monitor or any device that tracks glucose levels, not a replacement.”
Diabetic alert dogs are trained to perform the “active paw alert,” which involves the dog pawing its handler on the arm to let them know that their blood sugar levels are either high or low. Once the handler responds to the alert, they give the dog a treat as a reward to let the dog know the alert has been received. If the handler does not respond to the alert, the dog goes to someone else in the house.
If Emma does not respond to Rufus’ alerts, the dog will notify her mother.
Rufus reported for duty as soon as he arrived. He pawed Emma within the first 45 seconds of meeting her.
“I’ve never seen another dog alert someone so quickly,” said his trainer, Hassan. “I was seriously in shock. He was just so ready.”
And so was Emma.
“Hey, Ahmed, I have a question for you,” she said. “ . . . Am I dreaming? Because I still can’t believe I have my dog.”
A colorful way to help out
When Emma Brussell received a donation for her diabetic alert dog from a pair of donors two days after her story appeared in Newsday, she had sold seven paintings and raised almost $2,000.
“The moment she knew she had enough money for us to submit the application and give the $2,500 deposit required to start the process of getting a dog, Emma was on a cloud,” said her mother, Kelly Brussell.
That night, Emma told her mother she wanted to keep painting. “It would be nice if another kid asked for a dog for Christmas, then maybe I could be like an elf and put it under a tree,” Emma told her.
They decided to start Emma’s Journey, a nonprofit organization dedicated solely to offering funding to help children with Type 1 diabetes get diabetic alert dogs. The animals cost from $10,000 to $25,000, according to several organizations that provide them. They are trained to use their sense of smell to detect low or high blood sugar levels, and then alert their owners. Ahmed Hassan, who trained Emma’s dog, Rufus, uses an analogy to explain the dogs’ role:
“I relate this to cookies baking in the oven,” said Hassan. “Let’s say it takes 10 minutes for the cookies to bake. When they’re ready, your whole house will smell like fresh-baked cookies. But that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t be able to smell them at 4 minutes, 6 minutes or even 8 minutes, in the oven. As the cookies near completion, the smell becomes more strong, and so, the same is true for a dog who is smelling trending blood sugar levels.”
For many parents, knowing that their child is accompanied by a diabetic alert dog provides an added level of protection.
Rita Foster, 53, of St. James, got her 14-year-old daughter, Paula, a diabetic alert dog seven years ago. She said Cooker, a male golden retriever who died last May, was invaluable.
“Cooker was there to protect her and signal her [blood glucose] highs and lows, and he helped her every step of the way, but to be honest, he helped me, too,” Foster said. “He helped me feel more at ease, and when she was low at night there were many times he would nudge me and jump on the bed and stand over me until I’d get up.”
Brussell sells prints of Emma’s paintings, as well as T-shirts, magnets and greeting cards with her work on them, at local craft and street fairs and at special events. Her original artwork will continue to be auctioned off.
To learn more, go to emmasjourney.org.
— DAYSI CALAVIA-ROBERTSON