Service dog embraced at Albion Elementary School

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 23 June 2016 at 12:00 am

Kenai kept a watchful eye on Tyler Schnepf

Photos by Tom Rivers – Tyler Schnepf, 11, climbs the stairs in the Ronald L. Sodoma Elementary School this morning with Kenai, a service dog trained to detect changes in Tyler’s blood sugar levels. Kenai spent the entire school year with Tyler.

ALBION – The Ronald L. Sodoma Elementary School welcomed a popular addition this school year: a service dog named Kenai.

The dog stayed close to fifth-grader Tyler Schnepf throughout the year, even riding the bus with him and joining him at school concerts. Kenai, a 2-year-old English Cream Golden Retriever, spent most of the school days sitting on the carpet next to Tyler in Mrs. Mindy Kenward’s class.

“It was a very smooth transition,” Mrs. Kenward said today. “Some days we didn’t even know Kenai was here.”

Kenai joins Mrs. Kenward’s fifth-grade class today on the last day of school. The dog will join Tyler and the other fifth-graders in moving up to the middle school in September.

Tyler’s mother Jennifer Orr praised the school administrators, teachers, staff and students for welcoming Kenai this year. The family raised $20,000 through raffles, a spaghetti dinner and other fund-raisers to buy the dog that was trained to detect drops or spikes in Tyler’s blood sugar levels.

“We wouldn’t have been able to get Kenai without the community support,” Orr said today.

Kenai received his puppy and obedience training from a breeder in Alaska. Then he was trained in California to detect diabetic levels. Tyler’s family sent swabs of Tyler’s saliva at different blood sugar levels for Kenai to train.

Kenai joined the family last summer. He is a working service dog so students were urged not to pet the dog and to try to draw his attention. That proved difficult for some students, especially the kids in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten. Even Mrs. Kenward, an admitted “dog lover,” said she was tempted to pet the dog.

The new yearbook includes a headshot of Kenai and Tyler.

Tyler’s family pushed to get a service dog because Tyler has juvenile diabetes. He was diagnosed when he was 7. He was checking his sugar levels 10 times a day. He and his family learned to live with the frequent checks and the insulin shots.

But the situation became more worrisome in the summer of 2014 when Tyler’s mother heard him thrashing on his bedroom floor. It was 6:30 in the morning and Tyler was having a seizure. The next day he was walking and talking, when he sensed something wasn’t quite right. He had another seizure, falling into his mother’s arms. She administered an emergency glucagon shot.

Tyler’s parents kept a continuous glucose monitor on him, and installed a video monitor to watch him at night. But they fear that wouldn’t be enough to alert them if their son is having a seizure.

A diabetic alert dog, however, can detect a drop or spike in blood sugar levels before there is a seizure. With Kenai, Tyler’s average blood sugar readings have been 119. Before that they were in the high 200s.

“The dog will alert us when Tyler’s blood sugar starts to go high or low,” Mrs. Orr said. “We haven’t had real highs or lows because Kenai catches them sooner.”

If the dog senses a change in Tyler’s blood sugar, the dog will scratch at Tyler’s leg or go wake up his parents if it’s at night.

Kenai wears a service dog vest. He is usually tethered to Tyler during the school day. Today he took a break while Tyler stopped in the nurse’s office. The dog was trained to go potty before school and not again until the afternoon when Kenai was home.

Mrs. Kenward asked the fifth-graders today how they thought the year went with Kenai. The students were positive and said they were amazed the dog adjusted to the class routine, and didn’t mind some of the surprises, such as fire drills and the loud clanging during band. (Tyler plays the trumpet.)

Tyler said this school year went by fast. He said Kenai fit in well with his classmates.

“He does a good job,” Tyler said about the dog.