Diabetic alert dog more than a new best friend for Leyden student

  • Julia Nicholas-Duprey, 23, with her diabetic alert dog, Pretzel, at her Leyden home. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Julia Nicholas-Duprey, 23, with her diabetic alert dog, Pretzel, at her Leyden home. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Diabetic alert dog Pretzel is pictured playing at her Leyden home. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Diabetic alert dog Pretzel is pictured at her Leyden home. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Leyden resident Julia Nicholas-Duprey, 23, prepares to fly home with her new diabetic alert dog, Pretzel, on Oct. 9. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 10/18/2021 5:06:25 PM

LEYDEN — After a multi-year journey and fundraising effort, a 23-year-old Leyden resident has graduated from a training program and been united with her diabetic alert dog, and new best friend, Pretzel.

Pretzel, a 14-month-old female Golden Retriever, attended service dog training from the time she was just 5 weeks old, Julia Nicholas-Duprey said. The pair attended a training session together from Oct. 3 to Oct. 8, and spent time bonding each night at her Airbnb. Now back in Massachusetts, Pretzel will live with Nicholas-Duprey on her family’s property at Leyden Glen Farm.

“She is extremely well behaved,” she said of Pretzel. “Eventually, she will attend UMass Amherst with me. I am extremely excited to bring her home with me and begin the rest of our lives.”

Nicholas-Duprey, a 2017 graduate of Pioneer Valley Regional School who is now co-president of the College Diabetes Network at UMass Amherst, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was 6. It’s a genetic condition she shares with her aunt and grandfather. In addition to her diabetes, Nicholas-Duprey has a neurological condition called hydrocephalus, which causes a buildup of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain. She underwent several brain surgeries at a young age.

While a diabetic alert dog will not help with her hydrocephalus, Nicholas-Duprey said Pretzel will help her manage her health and increase her independence. While she has a continuous blood sugar monitor, she said it doesn’t always warn her in time to balance her blood sugar level. Having Pretzel will help ease some of the anxiety of constantly monitoring her blood sugar levels.

Diabetic alert dogs are trained to monitor smells in the air for a specific scent on the human breath that is related to rapidly dropping or low blood sugar levels. They are then trained to “alert” the person with diabetes, usually by touching them in a significant way such as pawing or nudging them.

Nicholas-Duprey said she can get low blood sugar levels at night, and risks sleeping through the dangerously low levels or even the alarm from her insulin pump. Having a diabetic alert dog will help better alert her when this happens in her sleep, or any time during the day, she said. Pretzel graduated as a service dog, but her specific training to detect her owner’s blood sugar levels will continue now that she is at her home in Leyden.

“Like humans, her education never stops, and she’s going to be learning all the time,” Nicholas-Duprey said. “We have a whole book for training with different commands.”

The October training class was held in Kansas through Cares Inc., a company that trains medical alert, seizure and diabetic alert dogs, as well as comfort and therapy dogs. Part of Pretzel’s training was also done through a program with Terri Haute Prison in Indiana, from when she was 5 weeks to about 6 months old.

Other attendees of the class were mostly therapy dogs that will work at schools, and one who is going to a nursing home. There were also several post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) service dogs, which Nicholas-Duprey said would find homes with owners in Canada. There was only one other diabetic alert dog.

“During the class we mostly worked on commands such as go to, heel, come, down, stay, up and take a break,” she said. “At the end of the week, we had to pass a public access test to make us a certified team.”

Beyond her own well-being, Nicholas-Duprey wants to improve the ability for others to get the health companion they need. She worked with state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, to petition a bill in February that would provide coverage and access to service dogs or service dogs in training for those with qualifying disabilities. Additionally, the bill aims to have service dogs covered by medical insurance.

To help with the cost of owning a dog, Nicholas-Duprey is continuing to raise money through a GoFundMe, which can be found at gofund.me/2b470b49. She thanked all those that had previously contributed to a GoFundMe, and said she wouldn’t have been able to afford Pretzel without this community support.

At some point, when the COVID-19 pandemic is over, she said she hopes to hold a meet and greet for those who donated to meet Pretzel.

To keep up with Nicholas-Duprey and Pretzel in the meantime, find them on Facebook at bit.ly/3AR1DFx. You can also follow them on Instagram @pretzelthediabeticalertdog. A blog dedicated to her service dog efforts can be found at bit.ly/2YZsJsT.

Reporter Zack DeLuca can be reached at zdeluca@recorder.com or 413-930-4579.

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