I am a type 1 diabetic, I have been an active cyclist for over 25 years and through my volunteer work for the Tour de Cure, I recently met an amazing young boy named Caden Cubbage, who is truly an inspiration. Here is Caden’s story.
Caden Cubbage races off to play with his older brother Adam at Woodward Park as his parents, Jason and Connie, and the family’s Labrador Retriever, Piper, look on. About 30 minutes later, Piper gets up, grabs a small stuffed rod known as a bringsel from Jason’s belt and presents it to Jason. Caden is immediately called back; he hops up on the park bench beside his dad, pricks his finger and expertly takes a blood glucose reading. “It says 45,” Caden reports. He dives into his nearby backpack, pulls out some fruit snacks and sits down to enjoy some healthy carbohydrates that will bring his blood glucose back up to a safe level. I asked him how he felt. Nonchalant, he replied, “Low.”
Caden is a typical five-year-old boy in many ways: he goes to a “fun” preschool where he has lots of friends, plays on a baseball team, runs and rough-houses with his big brother Adam, and shares his home with Piper.
Not so typical, though, is that Piper is a specially-trained diabetes alert dog who can smell when Caden’s blood glucose level is too low or too high and raise the alarm.
Caden was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of nineteen months, when his parents and preschool teacher were tipped off by the common warning signs of excessive thirst and urination. Three months later, Caden started using a Medtronic insulin pump, a small device worn externally that delivers precise amounts of fast-acting insulin through a tiny tube inserted just under the skin. This was the safest method to administer insulin to Caden because, at his size at the time, even one unit of insulin could cause his blood sugar to plummet dangerously low.
Caden currently uses a Dexcom G4 Platinum continuous glucose meter nicknamed “Dex” in the Cubbage household. This device provides valuable data on Caden’s current blood glucose reading, where it’s going (up or down), and how fast it’s getting there. When “Dex” senses Caden’s blood glucose is dipping below 70 mg/dl, it emits an audible beeping noise, alerting Caden and those around him that he needs a snack. It also provides a historical record of glucose readings so patterns of lows/highs can be tracked.
Even with this high-tech medical equipment working for them, Jason and Connie often felt helpless in their efforts to keep their son safe. Looking for more options, Jason started researching diabetes alert dogs; he found that dogs can be trained to detect changes in human blood glucose using their highly developed sense of smell and alert a human handler.
However, the Cubbages were discouraged to find out there was typically a four year lag time between applying for and receiving a trained detection dog. Most kennels have a two-year wait list for a client to be paired up with an appropriate puppy, then another two-year wait time while they train the dog. Even after a years-long wait, the price for a trained dog can top $10,000.
After speaking with the trainers at Wildrose Kennels in Oxford, Mississippi, a business that trains and breeds British Labrador Retrievers for hunting and scent detection services, the Cubbage family decided to start their own diabetes alert dog journey. The plan: purchase a puppy, attend Wildrose’s diabetes alert dog seminars to learn the fundamentals involved in training a diabetes alert dog, and train their own dog at home. Jason, armed with experience in scent training of hunting dogs, believed he was up to the task.
Piper joined the family as a seven-week-old puppy. Jason started obedience and place training soon after bringing Piper home and began scent training at six months, adding Canine Good Citizen training at two years of age. The desired result of this involved training process was that when Piper would smell the distinctive scent of Caden’s saliva during a low blood glucose episode, she would “alert” by taking the bringsel in her mouth and presenting it to Jason or Connie and then receive a treat as a well-deserved reward.
When Caden experienced a blood glucose reading of 70 mg/dl or less, his parents would swab his mouth with gauze to get a saliva sample. Piper was asked to thoroughly smell the sample so that she could memorize the unique scent. Then, the bringsel was introduced so Piper would form an association between the smell and the bringsel. Along the way, she was given treats as positive reinforcement of the whole process.
Before long, the training program began to pay dividends and Piper became uncannily accurate at detecting Caden’s low blood sugar. At about one year of age, Piper was detecting Caden’s low readings and alerting about 30-40% of the time, by 1 ½ years old, she was nearly 60% accurate, and at three years old, she is now about 90% accurate and has also taught herself to detect and alert high glucose readings as well as low readings.
Another benefit is the speed of detection Piper can achieve; after Piper raised the alarm at Woodward Park, Caden and Adam went back to rough-housing for nearly ten minutes before “Dex” belatedly sounded its own alert and indicated a blood glucose of 70 mg/dl.
Jason, Connie, Adam and Caden lead as normal lives as possible. They are big supporters and advocates of the work of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. After enjoying a family vacation to Disney World, they plan to attend the Tour de Cure to cheer on all the cyclists as they ride to help find a cure for diabetes.
They all love having Piper as a member of their family and appreciate her amazing talents. They enjoy attending an annual convention in Mississippi along with other families and their diabetes detection dogs. If you ask Caden what his favorite thing about Piper is, he’ll tell you, “Giving her hugs and kisses!”
Sandy Breipohl is a stay-at-home mom who is rarely at home. She is an active community volunteer, avid bicycle rider, adventurous home cook, wife to Gary and mom to Adam. Currently without a permanent furry family member, she enjoys dog sitting for an adorable Whippet named Clyde when his people leave town.
Image Credits: Connie Cubbage
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