Katie Heywood took in a neglected black Labrador two and a half years ago, but it is not clear who really saved whom.
The Rapid Valley woman has provided foster homes for numerous rescued basset hounds. By chance, Heywood fostered a black Lab that she and her husband, Fred, found while she was on assignment as a traveling nurse in Washington state.
“We were just going to bring him home, foster him for two weeks and find him a good home,” she said. In that short time, Kayos began paying special attention to Heywood—nudging her for no apparent reason at random times, and putting his head in her lap as soon as she sat down.
Heywood, who is an insulin-dependent type 1 diabetic, thought the dog was trying to be an alpha dog. During one of the nudging episodes, her husband suggested she check her sugar level, and to Heywood’s surprise, her sugar was low. He has alerted her countless times since then.
Physician assistant Emily Huntley of Rapid City, who has met Kayos and knows his story, said she has heard of other reported cases of dogs signaling their owners to changes in their blood- sugar levels.
“They are still researching whether or not dogs can be trained to do this, particularly in the United Kingdom,” Huntley said. “We don’t know yet exactly how a dog could do this. It could have something to do with the dog’s acute sense of smell. There might be some change in pheromones or something that the dog can smell and tell that the patient is low blood-sugar.”
Huntley said it also could be changes in the owner’s behavior that the dog picks up on.
Heywood said she had known about service dogs for cancer and epileptic seizures and had heard about diabetic dogs, but had never met one. She said her father was blind and had a guide dog, so she had been around guide dogs most of her life.
The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a service animal as any guide dog, signal dog or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability. The dogs are not required to be certified, but Heywood said service dogs need to be well-behaved, even-tempered and most importantly, trainable.
Kayos and Heywood went through several obedience classes to train him to be comfortable in a number of different scenarios, and according to her, nothing fazes the dog.
“We taught him to be comfortable alongside wheelchairs, walkers, crutches and medical equipment, such as an IV pole, so he would not be skittish,” she said. She said Kayos loves working and his tail starts wagging as soon as his service vest goes on.
Heywood and Kayos travel to Omaha every few months to work with former Rapid Citian Shannon Butts, who has a background in nursing and has trained a number of service dogs.
“Unfortunately, there are no set nationalized standard tests,” Butts said. The dogs have to be service-worthy and have gone through at least basic obedience before she begins to work with a dog. She spends a lot of time desensitizing the dog to various distractions to stay focused on the owner.
Service dogs, which were once only used for wheelchair-bound people or the blind, are now used for many medical conditions such as diabetes, she said.
Heywood said she has been insulin-dependent so long that she no longer feels her highs and lows. But Kayos does, and she loves the added security on top of checking her sugar levels four times a day. Kayos has even alerted her out of a sound sleep when her sugar has dropped, which is why she shares her bed with the 105-pound dog.
Heywood and Kayos are returning to Omaha for more training with Butts to teach Kayos to retrieve and carry items for his owner, who has degenerative disc disease and will one day be unable to bend over.
Heywood does not want to think about the day she no longer has her beloved Labrador, who shares the home with two much older basset hounds, Emily and Big Boy, and a cat, Precious.
“He’s so much a part of me now. When the basset hounds go to Rainbow Bridge, we’ll still have Kayos,” Heywood said. “He’s our boy forever. It doesn’t matter even if he stopped alerting me. He has given so much already.”