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Butterbean the Blood-Sugar Hound

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You may know Todd and Jo Rackliff as the owners of The Sugaree, the bakery and restaurant on the corner of Burnt Church and Bruin in historic Bluffton. Their shop is well known by locals, providing delectable treats such as donuts, cinnamon rolls, and cake pops, as well as hardier options like sandwiches (curry chicken salad – yes please) and a loaded baked potato salad that is out of this world.

But what you may not know is that Todd has Type 1 diabetes. Yes, that’s right. He owns a restaurant with “sugar” in its name, and he has diabetes. Ironic much? Fortunately, Todd and Jo both have an excellent sense of humor.

dsc_0586Type 1, Type 2 – what’s the difference?

Before we get to the good part, let’s talk diabetes for a second. I have no family or friends with diabetes, so I had to ask, what is the difference between the two types of diabetes?

The Rackliffs were more than willing to educate me. While Type 2 diabetes is often associated with genetics or lifestyle, neither of these factors play a part in Type 1. They certainly didn’t for Todd. None of his family was ever known to have diabetes, and because of his high metabolism, he never struggled with weight, which is what many associate with diabetes. The cause of Type 1 remains a mystery, and for now, so does the cure.

Donuts and Doorways!

Jo explains it very simply: “Your pancreas produces insulin to control your sugar levels. Your body needs sugar to function, but too much is not good and too little is not good either. You need to stay within that 80-120, a normal range.

“Have you ever eaten like, 6 donuts, and thought, gosh, I shouldn’t have eaten all that sugar? But your body will adjust to that and get rid of the excess. People like Todd, their bodies don’t do that.”

Todd was diagnosed as a 12-year-old boy growing up in the backwoods of Maine when his blood sugar was in the 1200 range. In other words, a diabetic coma!

“When you have Type 2, your pancreas produces some insulin, just not on a fully active, regular basis. It was described to me this way: When you have Type 2, a door opens to your pancreas, and some comes out. If you have Type 2, your door only opens so far, so it slowly releases insulin into your system. If you exercise and watch what you eat, that door will open wider.dsc_0532

“With Type 1 . . . your immune system attacks the pancreas as if it were a foreign body and prevents the pancreas from producing any insulin whatsoever.”

She went on to explain that because Type 1 is essentially an autoimmune disease, the body won’t accept a pancreas transplant, so that’s not even an option for people like Todd.

So what to do?

Like Type 2 diabetes, finger pricks and insulin shots are a way of life. The key is remembering to do them on a regular basis. When the Rackliffs’ dog Oscar was alive, he kept Todd in a daily exercise and eating routine. “Controlling your blood sugar is all about routine,” says Todd. “Having a dog really helped a lot.” When Oscar was hungry and needed to be fed, Todd would take care of his diabetic needs as well. But when Oscar – and then later their 16-year-old rescue dog, Spike – passed away, that routine went away. “Being in food and bev, there’s no set mealtime. You’re on your feet all day, and you just eat when you remember to.”

Yeah, I remember those handfuls of fries in between waiting tables.

However, the difficulty comes when the blood sugar drops, and the diabetic remains unaware until he is unable to do anything about it. “Todd’s gotten so used to the symptoms that he can’t even tell when he is going to crash anymore,” says his wife, Jo. “Over the years I’ve learned the signs. It’s the little details – like if he puts the butter in the wrong place. And I tell him, ‘You never put the butter there.’ But the tricky part is that the symptoms never appear in the same order. It’s like a moving target.”

While his wife has developed ninja-like skills at detecting when Todd’s blood sugar is going to drop, she can’t always be by his side. “It’s better now that I work at the restaurant full time, but before, I had another job and he was by himself sometimes. And that’s dangerous when you’re working in a kitchen.”dsc_8467

You ain’t nothing but a hound dog!?

Solution? Several years ago, the couple discovered and looked into a well known service dog program out of Virginia. They did quite a bit of research but eventually learned, to their dismay, that a service dog from this program would cost $15,000. “That’s a car. That’s a lot of money for someone who has ongoing medical bills, especially when service animals aren’t covered under insurance.”

So they waited and looked around for a dog to replace their beloved Oscar and Spike. A daughter of one of their customers bred bloodhounds, many of which became Search & Rescue dogs. “Why not?” they thought. Jo had been wanting a working dog, and Todd had always wanted a bloodhound. It was perfect.

Enter Butterbean. Only 2 months old when they bought her, she developed an instant bond with Todd. That bond was part of the reason that they decided to pursue a different program. Rather than paying extra for a dog that was already trained, why not start with what they had?

Having gone through private and group obedience lessons, Butterbean is just starting her service dog classes. “She’s not your typical service dog breed,” says Jo. “Bloodhounds are known to be very stubborn, so the training process may take us a little longer.”butter-bean-1-of-1-1

Fee, fi, fum, fo, I smell the blood of a diabetic low!

But I had to ask, how in the world do you train a dog to detect when a man’s blood-sugar levels are dropping? The answer was more complicated than I had thought. It starts off with introducing Butterbean to the smell of Todd’s blood sugar. But not from blood – from clothing, from saliva samples, from sweat samples. And the samples should be within a range of when blood sugar levels are beginning to drop so the dog knows what to be alert for.

Everyone knows that dogs have a keen sense of smell, but what many don’t know is that dogs use their sense of smell a lot like humans use their sense of sight. Just as we can see individual threads in a tapestry, dogs can smell individual ingredients. If you were to bake chocolate chip cookies, you would be able to smell the cookies themselves. Dogs can smell the flour, the chips, the sugar, the butter. And bloodhounds can smell more keenly than even the average breed.

Even with their superpowers, bloodhounds need to be able to isolate the smell. If Todd and Jo stopped at just letting Butterbean sniff clothes from a specific bag at home, the dog might begin associating that smell with the bag, with home, or even with a particular deodorant that is present. On top of intense obedience training to familiarize the dog with different atmospheres and situations, scent training includes switching up when and where the dog will smell Todd’s dropping blood-sugar levels, as well as varying what he wears.

One day, Todd and Jo might use a bag of clothes with one type of deodorant. The next day, they might hide a sweat sample in the car. The day after that, the dog might have to search for it on an article of clothing amid the noise and confusion of a grocery store. “Part of the training is getting Butterbean to recognize that common denominator,” says Jo. “And she is being trained to give a single, short bark when she finds it.”

Butterbean may be a work in progress for right now, however there is no doubt that she has already improved Todd’s life, not only as a service dog, but a friend. “She absolutely loves Todd,” says Jo, “and hugging is one of her favorite things. When she isn’t in her harness, she can be such a goofball.” So far the couple has received only positive responses from the community. At present and in the future, the Rackliffs plan to use Butterbean as an education tool, hoping to raise awareness for diabetes and service dogs alike.


By Hannah Seigworth

Photos courtesy of Jo Rackliff

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