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Jefferson Awards: Dog Lover Creates Invaluable Alert System For Diabetics

CONCORD (CBS 5) - Eight years ago, an East Bay scientist discovered something amazing about dogs. So he got right to work: this week's Jefferson Award winner founded a non-profit to use this special canine skill to help people.

When 12-year-old Carter Persily's golden retriever gets excited and jumps on him, he's doing exactly what he is trained to do.

"Good dog!" Persily called to the dog, reaching around the wagging tail for his glucose monitoring kit.

Persily has diabetes, and his condition can be dangerous if his blood sugar drops too low. Even though he actively monitors his glucose levels, his dog, Herman, is trained to warn him.

It's a partnership best understood by Mark Ruefenacht.

"(Dogs) can pick up the chemicals that's emitted from the body when the blood sugar begins to drop rapidly," Ruefenacht explained.

Ruefenacht is a forensic scientist by profession, but he knows a lot about service dogs. For 20 years, he volunteered as a trainer for Guide Dogs for the Blind. He was training one of the puppies when he had his own diabetic episode. His blood sugar level dropped and he was losing consciousness.

"The dog was persistent in just helping me get up and treat myself," he remembered. "So the thought came to me, 'What can I do with these wonderful dogs that can also assist diabetics?'"

That was the beginning of Dogs4Diabetics, a non-profit Ruefenacht started 8 years ago. Using his scientific background, he researched human chemistry and the canine response, and trained dogs to react to specific changes using their keen sense of smell.

"They are being trained off the chemical reactions that happen as the result of the blood sugar changing or dropping rapidly, and that's emitted through breath and sweat," said Ruefenacht. "They're able to tell me about 15-20 minutes before any consumer device can tell me."

Guide Dogs for the Blind and Canine Companions donate service dogs to Dogs4Diabetics. Ruefenacht credits his many volunteers with the hours of training it takes, both for dogs and humans, to build this special relationship. To date, Dogs4Diabetics has given away more than 100 dogs like Herman, who's been Carter Persily's companion for 9 months now, and never leaves his side.

"He has alerted even when I was swimming in the pool," Persily remembered. "He came into the pool and swam up to me and pawed at me."

Even during an interview with CBS 5, with Persily's mother sitting beside him, it was Herman who first sensed a problem, persistently jumping up on Persily.

"Yes my blood sugar dropped over 10% within 15 minutes," Persily confirmed. "So it was a really good alert Herman!" The boy slipped the dog a treat.

Persily's mother Eva added, "For a mom, you are constantly nervous. It's just peace of mind at night. I can't describe it - it's an unbelievable, amazing thing Dogs4Diabetics, Mark (Ruefenacht), has done. There's no words!"

"I see the difference it makes in their lives," Ruefenacht said. "That to me, more than pays for all the hours and time and effort that goes into this program."

So for pioneering research and creating an organization that gives diabetics new confidence to live safer lives, this weeks Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Mark Ruefenacht.

There are now more requests for dogs than there are dogs available, so volunteers and donations are always welcome. Connect with Dogs 4 Diabetics using this link

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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