Keeping diabetic crises at arm’s length involves everyone in the Stone family of Fairfield, including their lovable alert dog, Cindy
Photograph: Paola Murphy
Billy Stone’s German shepherd, Cindy, has a nose for trouble. It’s not tearing up the furniture rascally puppy kind of trouble, but an uncanny ability to sniff out danger whenever her teenage master is asleep and his insulin levels plummet.
On a daily basis, Cindy is Billy’s personal, life-saving hero alert dog.
With her carefully trained hypersensitive nose, Cindy can actually smell when Billy, a type 1 (or juvenile) diabetic, is on the verge of a medical crisis. She sounds the alarm by licking Billy aggressively until he awakens. (Her reward—how cute is this?—is an Oscar Mayer wiener.) Cindy’s is both a sweet and serious pet trick: For Billy, his mother, Denise, explains, is part of a rare subset of type 1 diabetics who don’t awaken naturally when they are on the verge of an insulin crisis. Which is why, before Cindy arrived, his parents hovered over their son in a state of nocturnal panic. “I was sleeping with one eye open and one foot on the floor,” says Denise.
Billy, a sophomore at Fairfield Prep, was diagnosed at age ten after his mother noticed that her athletic son’s insatiable thirst and constant hunger—classic diabetes symptoms— never waned, even when a family vacation gave him a break from his normally intense basketball practices. When Billy took off his shirt to jump in the pool, his mother intuitively knew something was terribly wrong. “He was just emaciated,” she says. “And if you could have seen how much he was eating and drinking, you would understand how much it didn’t make sense and how scared I was.”
Thus, began a saga that led to Billy’s diagnosis and his mother’s subsequent odyssey to find a medical alert dog for the family. Billy’s naturally heavy slumbers put him in real danger. “He could slip into a coma in his sleep,” Denise explains. When Denise’s mother saw an article about alert dogs—carefully trained canine partners who can aid diabetics by sensing insulin danger—she urged her daughter to investigate. After several frustrating dead ends, Denise’s tenacity paid off when she found a reputable kennel in Amarillo, Texas, willing to train Cindy to keep Billy safe.
But Cindy’s meticulous yearlong training, which involved learning to monitor Billy’s insulin levels by sniffing his worn T-shirts shipped to her trainer, came at a steep price. Cindy cost $15,000. “These dogs can and do change lives, but for a lot of families who truly need them, they are also prohibitively expensive,” Denise says.
When Billy’s younger sister Stephanie, fifteen, heard her parents discussing Cindy’s costs, she offered a selfless gesture. Then living in Marblehead, Massachusetts, she asked friends attending her eleventh birthday party to make donations to Billy’s alert dog fund (dubbed B.A.D.) in lieu of other gifts. “I love my brother. We’re not like a lot of siblings because we get along all the time and I really would do anything for him,” says Stephanie, a freshman at Milford’s Lauralton Hall.
Ultimately, Stephanie’s efforts paid for all the costs associated with Cindy’s purchase. “When the parents of her friends heard what she was doing, they wrote checks too. There was a wonderful outpouring and it just snowballed,” says Denise.
Stephanie also inspired the family to become committed for the long haul to helping other families acquire well-trained alert dogs.
This summer, the Stone family relocated from Dallas to Fairfield and decided their new pooch-loving town was the perfect place to formally launch Billy’s foundation, Alert Dogs for Life. Although he’s busy with homework and basketball, Billy founded the nonprofit and created its website with the goal of raising awareness about alert dogs; their protective necessity, expense, and challenges. While one altruistic goal is to help families of limited means acquire such pets, Billy’s efforts extend beyond fundraising for the juvenile diabetic community. “I don’t see this as something I want to do just for diabetic kids,” he says, noting that seizure-prone epileptics can also benefit from alert dogs. He also wants to play a role in educating other potential owners about securing alert canines from reputable kennels. “Some kennels just say they train alert dogs when they really don’t,” he explains. (There have even been media reports on unfortunate alert dog scams.) Long-term, he envisions lobbying for the creation of broad-based certification standards for alert dog kennels and trainers.
And Billy and Stephanie, who both have community service requirements at their respective schools, are committed to incorporating the foundation in their future projects. Meanwhile, Denise, who was active in National Charity League in Dallas, is already busy networking with other local nonprofits in hopes of promoting collaborations with Billy’s foundation.
As for Cindy, the Stones want her to take a load off her dutiful paws: As Billy’s matured into a young man, he’s become an expert at managing his diabetes. He wears an insulin pump and sets his phone alarm to wake him at regular nighttime intervals to check his blood sugars. “If I’m fine, I’m only up for a second and I’m back to sleep,” he says.
While Cindy remains close and ever vigilant, Billy doesn’t rely on her as much for those urgent wake-up licks. “Our goal is to let her retire and just be the beloved family pet she deserves to be,” says Denise. “Cindy’s worked hard enough.”
Tips for Finding an Alert Dog
by Billy Stone
1 Do research on the trainer and make sure they have a good reputation and proper experience.
2 Get at least three referrals for the trainer and call each of them to make sure the trainer isn’t trying to cheat you.
3 Make sure the dog is the right fit for you, and that the dog actually alerts.
Learn more at alertdogsforlife.com