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Service dog sniffs out safety for diabetic teen

Josh Sweat, 15 receives canine companion with help from community
By: Leah Rosasco, Auburn Journal Correspondent
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Thanks in part to the support of the community, Christmas came a little early this year for one Auburn teen.  
Josh Sweat, 15, signed up last March to receive a service dog to help him cope with the daily rigors of living with Type I diabetes, and now that he has his dog he is thankful to the community for the help he received.
“Without everybody in the community who helped this would not have been possible,” Josh said.
After 9 months of waiting for the arrival of his canine companion, Josh finally met his new dog, Lilly, a four-month old chocolate Labrador from Warren Retrievers, based in Virginia.  Although Josh had expected Lilly to arrive on Dec. 2, he got a surprise a day early when he answered a knock at his front door.  
“I opened the door and there was the trainer with my dog,” Josh said, recollecting the surprise his mom, Tonya Sweat, had coordinated. “She got here a day early and I was so happy to see her.”
For Josh and his family, one of the most amazing aspects of going through the process of getting a service dog was the outpouring of support from the community.
Josh said he was touched by the generosity of service organizations and businesses including the Auburn 20/30 Club, Kiwanis, Daybreak Rotary Club, Grocery Outlet, and Loved Again Children’s Boutique in Auburn, all of which contributed to his fundraising efforts.
In all, the family raised more than $10,000 locally, including $2,700 raised at a fundraiser at the Loved Again Children’s Boutique.
Juliana Dent, co-owner of Loved Again Children’s Boutique, helped to organize the event after Josh visited her store looking for donations to help him get a service dog. Although she said she wasn’t able to donate cash, Dent knew immediately that she wanted to help.
“It felt wonderful to be able to help him,” Dent said. “He was so bright and his story really touched my heart.”
At the age of 9, Josh was diagnosed with Type I diabetes. Since that time he has learned to give himself insulin injections, check his blood sugar (something he does up to 10 times a day), and monitor his intake of carbohydrates in order to keep his blood sugar in check.
As his service companion, Lilly’s job is to help Josh monitor his blood sugar levels by letting him know if they get too low or too high. Tonya Sweat said Lilly’s heightened sense of smell enables her to detect a change in Josh’s blood sugar levels up to 20 minutes before he is aware of it himself.  
“When his blood sugar levels get too low it is a major concern,” Tonya Sweat said. “That’s when he could have seizures or go into a coma. It can be deadly.”
For Tonya Sweat, knowing that Lilly is helping her son keep track of his blood sugar levels provides a new sense of security. Since Lilly has been with the family, Josh’s average blood sugar levels have dropped, something that is vital to his long-term health.
“I definitely sleep easier at night knowing there is an extra nose there,” Tonya Sweat said.
Although many service dogs are fully-trained when they are delivered to their new owners, Josh will be doing the bulk of Lilly’s training with support and assistance from a trainer with Warren Retrievers.  Since Lilly arrived, Josh has been working to identify Lilly’s natural reactions when his blood sugar levels fluctuate and retrain her to use specific signals.
For example, Josh said when his levels change, Lilly’s natural reaction is to hiccup, yawn, scratch her neck or whine and with training, she will react differently.
“Eventually she will learn to put her paw on my knee if my levels are too high and she’ll nudge me with her nose if my levels get too low,” Josh said. “It takes time to train her from her natural instinct, but so far we are doing great.”