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How having a diabetes alert dog makes you feel less alone, Kathleen & Ransom

Kathleen Fraser was busy. She competed in triathlons and was involved in the diabetes community through her employment at Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and at the Diabetes Center at UC San Francisco. Knitting and meditation occupied her quieter moments. Diagnosed with diabetes herself when she was 29, she has lived with it for nearly a quarter-century. But becoming partners with Ransom, a black Labrador Retriever, made a difference in her life that she didn’t expect.

Fraser has known about diabetic alert dogs since they first began to be formally trained for people. Living with one, though, was more of a commitment than she was ready to make, given her active lifestyle. But five years ago, some middle-of-the-night low blood sugars, her endocrinologist’s concern, and an end to a relationship had her rethinking the idea.

“I was going to be living alone again, and I realized how much I valued having ‘someone else’ in the house,” she says. A diabetic alert dog could offer support and security as she navigated the changes in her life: she had given up triathlons, she was living on her own again, and she was facing an unexpected job loss. But the thorough application process made her think about her daily routine and her needs as someone with diabetes. That helped her to recognize the benefit a DAD could bring to her emotional wellbeing as she remade her life.

She and Ransom, who is now 7 years old, were matched four years ago in August 2016. It wasn’t easy. That’s the first thing to know. Being unable to choose a specific dog but having to trust the trainers to make the best match was unnerving to someone who was used to being in control.

“When you have diabetes, you are used to a routine and you don’t like too much change,” she says. “You’ve got a system.” When she first brought Ransom home during the intensive two-week training program, Kathleen wondered if she had made a mistake.

She and Ransom had to “umbilical cord” so they could become accustomed to each other and bond. They were constantly attached by a leash, even when she was sleeping. It was challenging but being able to compare notes with other trainees in class each day made it easier.

“It’s a full two weeks, Monday through Friday,” she says. “You have a weekend in between where you’re at home. When you come back on Monday, there’s lots of new experiences you had that they are 100 percent prepared to answer. I think it really makes you open to learning a new way of doing things, which is good for any aspect of your life.”

As it turned out, the loss of her job gave Kathleen and Ransom a full year to get into a routine and establish a strong partnership. It wasn’t always easy to realize that she could no longer leave for eight hours to go on a 60-mile bike ride, but since then she has learned ways to have flexibility in her life. More important, she recognizes that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.

Most recently, she and Ransom have undertaken what is so far a 3,600-mile road trip cross country to visit friends and family. On the way, they visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, the state capitol in Lincoln, Nebraska, and a museum in Rawlins, Wyoming. Knowing that Ransom has her back, combined with the structure and routine of caring for him, gave her a sense of comfort, confidence, and security.

At the Flight 93 National Memorial in Pennsylvania, a simple walk reminded her of Ransom’s importance in her life. “I went to this memorial and it has this two-mile walk,” she says. “It was beautiful, it was really moving, and I’m in this reflective head space, but I was also doing something more physical that I haven’t done in a while.” She sat down on a bench to look out over the memorial, and Ransom alerted her by giving a paw. She pulled out her sensor and discovered that her blood sugar was going low. She hadn’t been aware of it, and that surprised her.

In the past, she might have been fearful that she was alone in such a situation, with no one to help her. But Ransom was with her. Calming him, giving him a treat, and having him lie down helped to distract her from potential panic. It’s a different kind of benefit not typically associated with a service dog.

For people who are considering linking their lives with a diabetic alert dog, Kathleen counsels patience, as well as recognition of the reality that life with a DAD isn’t one-size-fits-all. “It takes time to get into a lifestyle that will be very personalized for you and your life with diabetes,” she says, adding that the support from EAC both during and after training is crucial. “You are not alone with it. Carol and Beth are available all the time, even now.” And in the process of developing a new routine, you will learn new things about yourself and about your diabetes, she says. “You feel less alone with the diabetes. It’s been a really great journey.”

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