It was just another evening. Sierra Richmond and Junai, her almost three-year-old Husky-Pitbull-German Shepherd Dog mix, were at home enjoying snuggles and television. Junai started to bump her arm and shoulder, signaling to her that something was wrong. For Sierra, who is diabetic, this nudging was a sign that her blood sugar could be rising or falling to unsafe levels.
Sierra felt fine, but she ran a test on her blood sugar just to be sure. The test came back normal, and so, Sierra planned to simply test again in ten minutes. But Junai wasn’t happy with the delay. He continued to nudge Sierra, prompting her to test her blood sugar again before the full ten minutes had passed. Once again, the test came back normal.
But Junai knew nothing of numbers and so once again he forcefully pawed at her. Trusting her dog’s instinct, Sierra got some sugar into her system. The decision saved her life, although it did not come soon enough to prevent her blood sugar level from falling dangerously low. “I felt myself crashing with severe low blood sugar, to the point that my eyes were losing focus. I had my daughter bring me my testing kit and then tested myself again. I was a life-threateningly low 37; I should have been blacked out already.” If not for Junai’s persistence, that seemingly ordinary evening might have been her last.
As Sierra’s Diabetic Alert Dog (DAD), Junai saves Sierra’s life every day. Since she adopted him last October through Second Chance Pups, Junai’s job has been to alert Sierra in advance of unsafe blood sugar events. This is their story.
For years, Sierra had experienced severe low blood sugar without warning, often blacking out, and any of which could have proved fatal. When Sierra first heard about Diabetic Alert Dogs about five years ago, she decided to do some research. She contacted a company that focused on training rescue dogs to become diabetic alert dogs, but found out that it would take a long time to find her the right one. Not satisfied to wait, Sierra also began her own search on PetFinder for a potential service dog candidate.
The first picture Sierra saw of Junai suggested that he was a “derpy dog—and I definitely wanted silly and goofy.” She couldn’t tell from his photo if he’d make a good service dog; she just knew she loved his big up ears and his markings.
At the time, Junai was with Second Chance Pups, a program that pairs inmates at the Nebraska State Penitentiary with homeless dogs in need of training. Melissa Ripley, Adoption Coordinator for Second Chance Pups, answered Sierra’s questions about how he had come to be with them and about his personality. She also learned that he passed his cat test with flying colors. Sierra felt an instant rapport with Melissa, as if she had made an instant friend, and knew she wanted to adopt through Second Chance Pups.
Junai received his obedience training through Second Chance Pups. Then the Diabetic Alert Dog (DAD) training company sent a representative to evaluate Junai. After the representative determined that Junai had potential, the company transferred him back to their facilities to start scent and public access training. (The latter exposes a dog to public places and situations to ensure he can behave appropriately and confidently in public.) This training took four months, after which Sierra finally got to see Junai in a hotel lobby. “Our first meeting was not typical. He wasn’t initially allowed to interact with me, which was hard after waiting so long to meet him. Once we could finally interact, we locked eyes, which made me start to cry happy tears. When he put his paw on my leg, I completely lost it. He told me I was his; I knew he was mine!”
An adjustment period lay ahead. Sierra had three other pets–three dogs and a cat. But Junai soon put the rest of the pet crew in place by “informing them that he was in charge and wasn’t going to tolerate any of their resistance to a new dog in the house”. He was also eager to play with them. Meanwhile, both Sierra and Junai had much to learn. For six months, Sierra studied training materials while Junai worked with K9 officers.