Elle and Coach—How a Diabetic Alert Dog Changed my Daughter’s Life


I will never forget hearing my oldest daughter’s voice as it bubbled with excitement and anticipation through the phone. Elle was calling me from Concordia, Kansas, just two days after meeting her self-described “new best friend,” a yellow lab named, Coach.

I had no idea what to expect from this journey that began almost two years before when we decided to take a chance and bring a service dog into Elle’s life. In the foggy days and nights following Elle’s diagnosis over Thanksgiving weekend when she was 8 years old, we often heard that life was going to improve dramatically within five years. We heard that a cure was “just around the corner” and our goal was to help Elle stay as healthy as possible, so she would able to take full advantage of these anticipated new treatments. Years past.

Elle participated in numerous clinical research trials, including the bionic pancreas trial. She tried different blood glucose meters, switched from injections to an insulin pump and back again. When we tried an early generation continuous glucose monitor and that failed to deliver on the promises we had heard, Elle was frustrated and we were desperate to find a way to make life better.

Trust me when I tell you that I did not believe a dog could make a difference. When I saw a diabetes alert dog in action, I was intrigued, but highly skeptical. It seemed plausible, but not something that would work for our family. I thought of all of the reasons it wouldn’t work for us. The expense. Although our second daughter was an animal lover, Elle had a bad experience with an unfriendly dog when she was very little. How would that work? The expense. The time. The responsibility. The expense.

One way of helping Elle cope with the monotony of the chronic nature of diabetes was to find things to look forward to and stay focused on, something other than the daily aggravation of blood sugar checks and carb guessing and all of the highs and lows. While we waited for the next generation of continuous glucose monitor, I tried to put my doubts aside so we could approach the subject of giving a diabetes alert dog a try.

When we found CARES, Inc. it actually seemed like something new that we could try out. For starters, CARES keeps the cost much lower than most training programs by partnering with a correctional facility for the basic training. This partnership means that inmates are trained to provide all of the basic training for the dogs and this cost savings is then past along to families. For example, costs for medical alert dogs can range from $10,000-$20,000, but we paid CARES $2,500 for Coach. CARES also guarantees the placement so if for any reason the relationship with the dog doesn’t work, CARES takes the animal back and places it with another family. We were also reassured from the beginning that the dog would become part of our family “pack” even though he would be working for and with Elle.

In making the decision to try a diabetes alert dog, I honestly did not appreciate or understand what having a working dog around all of the time would mean for Elle. I naively imagined that we would rely on this dog for the nighttime hours when Elle was asleep. It was on the phone call that day when I heard for the first time how this relationship was going to change Elle’s reality.

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She enthusiastically explained that I would need to call the principal of her middle school and make sure it was okay for her to bring Coach to school on the following Monday and every day thereafter. I was surprised to hear that this was the plan and even more surprised that she was comfortable with this plan. Elle does not self-identify as a person with diabetes. She would tell you that she is a theater kid who happens to have blue eyes, dimples and type 1 diabetes. How would walking through the halls of middle school and very soon thereafter a large high school with a big yellow dog in a red vest impact her sense of self? How would people perceive her? Would she always be viewed and described as the “girl with the dog”?

My fears about whether Coach would be a sort of Scarlet Letter that Elle would carry were alleviated when Elle returned home with him. Elle’s love for Coach and the bond they share helped me answer my looming questions. Her responsibility as Coach’s trainer has given Elle a greater sense of control over the daily challenges of managing diabetes. Her focus has shifted from what diabetes demands of her to what Coach is trying to tell her and that shift makes all the difference.

Recently, Elle was running late to English class and was unaware that she had a low blood sugar. As she hurriedly rushed through the hall to get to class she shuffled past the nurse’s office with Coach trailing behind her. Coach stopped in front of the Nurse’s office door and refused to budge until he got Elle’s attention. She pulled on his leash to get him to come along and he steadfastly pulled in the direction of the Nurse’s office door. Coach knew Elle was low and he was trying to get her to stop what she was doing and check her blood sugar. When she released the tension on his leash and walked closer to Coach, he paw-swiped her leg, which is the signal that she needs to test. Elle finally stopped what she was doing and tested her blood sugar and she was 65. Elle treated quickly with some skittles and they made it to class on time.

In addition to the joy and protection that Coach brings her, Elle uses a continuous glucose monitor as a key part of her diabetes care regimen. Coach, the continuous glucose monitor, a blood glucose meter, insulin, exercise and Good Measures nutrition support each play important parts in helping to keep Elle safe and healthy.

Type 1 diabetes is described as an invisible disease because people living with it often do not look sick thanks to insulin and the many tools available to help keep people who live with the disease healthy. Sure, Elle and Coach get occasional stares but mostly this dog is a safety net, a friend magnet and an invaluable conversation starter. Coach takes Elle’s struggle out of the shadows and allows her to live out loud in a way that is very empowering for her and provides learning opportunities for all those who care enough to ask.

For more information on Diabetic Alert Dogs (DADs)

Hear what a DAD trainer has to say in “Dog Talk with Early Alert Canines”

Read Maggie Jones’ advice: “Consider This Before Getting a Diabetic Alert Dog”

WRITTEN BY Stefany Shaheen, POSTED 03/28/16, UPDATED 07/25/23

Stefany Shaheen has dedicated herself to making life better for people living with diabetes. She is on the board of trustees at Joslin Diabetes Center and serves on the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Advocacy Committee. Stefany is co-founder and president of Good Measures, which is a company dedicated to helping people manage nutrition-sensitive medical conditions. She is a proud mother of four and author of ELLE & COACH: Diabetes, the Fight For My Daughter’s Life, and the Dog Who Changed Everything available in bookstores on hardcover now and on paperback as of March 29, 2016. For more information about ELLE & COACH, please visit the website: http://www.elleandcoach.com/