PLEASANTON -- Nancy Harrison can now move through her days with a little less angst because of the prompts she now gets, be they a gentle nudge or a more boisterous pawing.
The nonprofit, Concord-based Early Alert Canines recently trained and matched Harrison, who has Type 1 diabetes, with Kade, a dog that can detect the subtle scents of low and high blood sugars.
"We can't smell it ... It gets down to a molecular level," says organization Executive Director Carol Edwards, noting the detection of a "cocktail of chemicals," such as acetone, adrenaline and endorphins, which are released into the bloodstream as a diabetic's glucose is dropping.
Over a period of 17 years, paramedics have been dispatched on several occasions to revive Harrison, of Pleasanton, She has long lived with the disease that "hits very hard, very fast, randomly and at the worst possible times ... I knew I needed (a service dog) to save my life," she said.
She now occasionally finds herself being awakened in the night by an 80-pound yellow Labrador retriever on her chest, alerting her that her glucose level is starting to plummet.
"He gets in my face ... He'll plow me down to get me to pay attention to him," Harrison said about Kade, who she describes as "a forever puppy."
Trained initially by the group Guide Dogs, Kade had a penchant for eating paper towels, socks and dryer sheets that made him unsuitable for the sight-impaired. But when it comes to alerting Harrison, he is all business.
Kade commutes with her to San Leandro and puts his head on her shoulder and starts licking her face if her sugars are low.
A piece of freeze-dried chicken is one of Kade's favorite treats.
"Carol tells us 'we don't want (your sugar level) to drop, but (the dogs do).' That's their treat time. It's a very demented way this works," Harrison said.
Harrison was part of a recent training class, to prepare her to live with Kade, that included others in her same situation.
For two years, Mindy Anderson has had to worry about dropping sugar levels and whether her son will wake up in the morning.
She now has some peace of mind and restful sleep.
"All the stars aligned and came together," Anderson said of their search for a companion dog for their son, Nathan, 5.
Oakley, a 2-year-old Labrador retriever mix, alerts the family about the boy's dropping blood sugar with her "ready to go somewhere" pose. Her ears are forward; she ignores commands; and pulls away when she's petted.
"Having Oakley here is very reassuring. She's one more set of eyes -- or nose -- to see what's happening," said Anderson, who lives in Yorba Linda.
She says Nathan feeds, brushes, plays ball and gives Oakley her treats to solidify their bond.
During the training this spring, five participants and their prospective service dogs navigated public transportation, walked in the mall and dined at a popular restaurant.
Labradors and retrievers are good bets for the canine portion of that match with their characteristic loyalty, ability to adapt to new situations and strong work ethic, Edwards said.
Because Stephanie Lovdokken has Ozark, a 2-year-old yellow Lab, at her side, her young son says he "doesn't have to worry so much about (her) anymore."
And, one of her third-grade students has noticed that she doesn't "get grumpy anymore."
"I would get so focused on the kids, I wouldn't realize what my own body was doing," says Lovdokken, who lives in Oregon.
Ozark has signaled low and high glucose levels approximately 290 times in the few weeks they have been together. He fixes his gaze on her, taps her with his paw or gives her a lick on her arm.
He's awakened her a couple of times in the night, alerted her before her ability to drive was impaired, and has stopped in his tracks when the two are running together.
"He won't budge till he sees me eat something," she says, noting that his prized rewards are mini-marshmallows and strips of jerky.
Peanut butter-flavored treats and gluten-free Cheerios are popular rewards for Leslie's alert efforts.
Since her diagnosis at age 3, Leslie's owner, Chrystal Mota, 27, has been on some "scary roads," including trips to the hospital when she struggled to regain consciousness.
The 3-year-old golden retriever/Lab mix, always accurate, gets the Sacramento resident to check her numbers a few times per day.
"She has this motherly instinct, this very strong lick, and she'll keep going till I get above 90 (on the index)," Mota says. "She's very persistent."
Like any successful pairing, Edwards evaluates the temperament of the dogs and the possible future owners and their lifestyles.
Hoops, born three years ago during March Madness, and San Francisco resident Nancy Cook, 59, are one such ideal match.
He now quietly rides Muni with Cook to her job as an administrative assistant for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, sporting his maroon vest with gold lettering reading Early Alert Canines and is unphased by the city's noise. Putting his head in her lap or a paw on her knee alerts Cook that she needs to check her levels, long before she's symptomatic.
"He's training me that I need to trust him," Cook says of her 70-pound lap dog.
For more information about Early Alert Canines, call 925-349-5190, or visit www.earlyalertcanines.org.