Sugar is just what Ruby needs

| 15 Feb 2012 | 10:39

Service dog gives warning before epileptic seizures strike Chester — For Ruby Tarttanian of Chester, life just got a lot sweeter. Ruby is diabetic and has been affected by epileptic seizures since infancy. But Sugar, a two-year-old yellow Labrador retriever and trained service dog, has made a big difference in her life. Sugar is trained to detect and warn humans when they are about to have seizure so that they can get to a safe place. “They don’t know how dogs can detect when a seizure is about to happen, but I think it has something to do with scent because not all dogs can do this,” said Ruby, who celebrated Sugar’s second birthday on Nov. 15. Sugar was trained by Canine Partners for Life in Cockranville, Pa. For her first year she lived in a puppy home where she learned basic skills, like asking to go outside and obeying commands to sit, lie down, stay, and speak. The second year, Ruby said, Sugar returned to Canine Partners to be trained in skills necessary to aid a human being for life. A dog who loves to work A person who needs such a specially trained animal can wait from six months to a year to get one. Ruby applied during the summer and got matched much more quickly than usual. Canine Partners tries to match a dog's temperament to the personality of the person he or she will work for. For example, an energetic dog would not be matched with a “laid back” person, or the other way around. Sugar is also trained to open doors and pick things up off the floor. And Ruby says she does some other things she doesn't need to do, like open the refrigerator door. “She loves doing her work,” said Ruby. Ruby has had to endure rude comments from people who don’t understand that the dog has been bred to work and thrives on pleasing its master. She's actually heard people say things like “poor dog,” as if it’s a sad thing for a dog to work. Or when they're in a restaurant, people will say, “That’s torture for a dog to have food in front of them like that." Service dogs are trained not to go for food. “To maintain the training, you must put food in front of them and teach them not to go for it on a regular basis," Ruby said. "When people say that it’s torture, I tell them I’m training her and she is practicing.” Ruby, who starts SUNY Orange in January, also had to go through training, for three weeks, to learn how to work with Sugar. On her third day, Oct. 13, Ruby brought Sugar back to her apartment and they've been together 24/7 ever since. Ruby also learned how to take care of Sugar. She bathes her once a month and every day checks her ears, eyes, nose, teeth, and gums. If Sugar's gums are slimy, it means she is hydrated. If they are dry, she is dehydrated. She smells Sugar’s ears to check for infection and looks into her eyes to make sure they're clear. Her belly is supposed to be “squishy” because bloat can be fatal. She also checks Sugar’s joints by testing her willingness to turn in either direction. Finally, Ruby checks her paws and pads for cracks or damage. She's still trying to figure out Sugar’s alert time. It's difficult to judge just how soon she will have a seizure after Sugar alerts her that. With medication, Ruby's seizures have become less severe. The average person might think she's just staring at something. But she makes sure she is sitting in a safe chair. She knows that if she does not heed Sugar’s warnings, the dog will cease to alert her after a while. “It is very important to listen to the dog,” Ruby said. Ruby does not own Sugar. If the dog ceases to alert Ruby, or if Ruby no longer needs the dog to alert her, Sugar will go back to the agency. Sugar is sponsored by the Novo Nordisk Parmaceutical Company, which makes the insulin that Ruby must take to survive. In fact, Ruby takes Sugar back to the company, in Princeton, N.J., to visit all 200 people who have known her since puppyhood. Ruby believes that her epilepsy was caused by a brain injury after birth. She also had 97 percent of her pancreas removed when she was only three months old. When she turned 14, the remaining 3 percent of her pancreas didn’t work, and she had to start taking insulin. She also takes three different seizure preventative drugs, but this has only stopped the grand mal seizures that especially hard on the brain. Now 21, Ruby continues to suffer what is commonly referred to as complex partial seizures, which she calls “small enough to manage.” Was life particularly challenging for Ruby before she met Sugar? Ruby said she's never known life to be different. Now she's looking forward to going to college. And she's also relishing the prospect of greater freedom — with Sugar by her side.