Photographs by Virginia Lazar
OAKHURST – Six kids and a bunch of dogs: one might think that’s a recipe for a happy sort of chaos, and it is. For the Becker family, it’s also the business plan for the entrepreneurial adventure of a lifetime, or even generations.
Jeremy and Alicia Becker, together with their half-dozen children who range in age from two to fifteen, have embarked on a mission to breed and train Diabetes Alert Dogs (DADs).
“Our specially-trained diabetes alert dogs can detect the scent of a diabetic who is experiencing the chemical change of falling blood sugar,” explains Jeremy, referring to the scent of saliva on diabetic patients. The dogs are also trained to alert their person when this change occurs, so the diabetic can “correct” their “low” before it becomes a problem.
“Big pharmaceutical companies are spending big money to try to determine this smell. Yet it just comes naturally to man’s best friend.”
The family’s oldest son, Wyatt, was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes (T1D) when he was just four years old.
“Unlike Type 2 diabetics who can control their diabetes with proper diet and exercise, Type 1 diabetics like Wyatt are insulin dependent, because the pancreas will no longer produce enough insulin to adequately regulate blood sugar.”
While that remains a challenge that Wyatt faces daily, the Beckers have managed to turn the condition into an opportunity.
Wyatt, who is now almost 11, has his own DAD in the form of Bailey, a yellow Labrador Retriever who’s less than two years old. Bailey is Wyatt’s dog, and they sleep in the same room every night. Wyatt says that’s one of the best parts of having Bailey, getting to have him to sleep with, and also that’s very warm.
Methodically trained on the scent of a biochemical change in Wyatt’s saliva registering a low insulin level, Bailey will follow a number of simple commands that Wyatt, his parents, or 15-year old sister Hannah, may give.
Hannah volunteered that she wants to continue to train dogs professionally in the future. “Training dogs is not hard, it’s just a lot of hard work,” Hannah said. Meanwhile, the family is working together to train Tioga and Jackie in the manner of Bailey.
“Juice” is one of the first commands Bailey demonstrated recently.
“We might say ‘get me a juice,’ and the dogs can be trained to get it from the fridge or from cabinet as needed.” Just prior to showing his capabilities, Bailey had been in a state best described as calm and alert.
Wearing the vest he associates with working, Bailey seemed to be relaxing on the living room floor, though he remained attentive.
When the command for “juice” went out, the dog did a remarkable thing — Bailey trotted to the refrigerator and gripped his teeth around a ball tethered to the door handle. He pulled on the ball, which opened the door. When the door was open wide enough, Bailey popped his front paws up into the open fridge and gently grabbed a juicebox from inside. As one might expect, a mouth like Bailey’s — bred for gumming fowl on retrieval — has no problem carefully manipulating a juice box.
Bailey delivered the potentially life-saving juice to Wyatt, received his reward of stroking and an audible “good boy,” and perhaps a piece of kibble, then sat back down looking fairly pleased with his doggy self.
According to the American Diabetes Association, an estimated 25.8 million Americans, or 8.3 percent of the population, have diabetes. Of that number, five percent have Type 1 diabetes — the most severe kind. Those who have had the disease for decades can develop “hypoglycemia unawareness,” or the inability to tell when their blood sugar is rapidly dropping.
Not only can this be life-threatening, but many Type 1s lose their jobs and careers because of the effect that low-blood sugar has on their performance. Jeremy Becker tells the story of a Colorado pharmacist who unknowingly suffered from “hypoglycemia unawareness.” After twice mis-counting prescription medications in a low blood-sugar induced state of extreme fogginess, his license was revoked, ending his professional career.
With their son Wyatt a Type 1 diabetic, and the disease on the rise in the United States, the Beckers began to research more on the Diabetes Alert Dogs known as DADs. The more they learned, the more clear their path became.
“As a young man, I worked with some good friends who raised dogs for police work — schutzhund training,” Jeremy recounts. “With a natural penchant for working with animals, a son with Type 1 diabetes, and six home-schooled children, breeding and training DAD’s was the long-awaited answer to my prayer of what kind of family business to operate.”
With intensive training, first in West Virginia with Jeremy and Hannah, then in California at the “Super Sniffers” conference in San Diego for Jeremy and Alicia, the Beckers gradually learned what all they could about the discipline. They acquired their breeding stock from Chilbrook Kennels, whose owner has been in the scent training business for over 40 years and known as one of the most respected scent trainers in the country. Jeremy says three dogs that make up the nascent business: the stud is yellow lab Bailey, along with black lab Tioga, 8 months, and chocolate lab Jackie, 17 months.
Jackie is currently carrying a litter of pups expected in June. The quality blood line helps to ensure the strong physical attributes such as good hips, elbows and eyes, will hold up for a long career in service-work.
“Our labradors come from a long-lineage of service-dogs,” say the Beckers. “Quality blood lines are important. We begin training our dogs when they’re just a few weeks old. As trainers, we spend over 1000 hours working with the dogs to prepare them for their job. The first six months of life is cementing basic obedience in the dog.”
With Bailey as an example, it looks like the breeding and training program the Beckers have opted into will turn out exceptionally well.
“’Check me’ is what Wyatt will say if he thinks he might be low,” they say. “The dog is then made aware that he needs to smell more intently. If indeed he smells a low blood sugar smell, he then alerts Wyatt by pawing him gently on the leg.”
Bailey is also trained to get Wyatt’s blood testing kit. One of the Beckers will say “meter,” or “bring me the meter,” and Bailey will oblige by delivering the Blood Glucose Monitor.
Jeremy recalls the first time Bailey alerted to a low blood sugar scent. They were driving to the feed store, with one of Wyatt’s low blood sugar saliva-swabs tucked inside Jeremy’s shirt, around the shoulder. Not long after they left the house, Bailey began pawing Jeremy’s shoulder. At first it was gentle, then gradually became nearly frantic. That’s when the father and investment advisor knew that, with those paws, they had a hit on their hands.
“People have roughly five million scent receptors in their noses. Dogs have 300 million in their sensitive snouts! We begin imprinting the scent very early and more formal scent training begins at about four months, continuing through their career as a Diabetes Alert Dog (DAD). Our dogs accompany us everywhere, getting as much exposure to life as we can give them so they are ‘prepared’ for their life as a service dog. We also really get to know our client’s lifestyle, so we can adequately prepare the dog for life with their companion.”
While there are six Becker children, their responsibilities with raising and training the dogs differ, depending on age and ability. Besides Hannah and Wyatt, the other kids include Jedidiah, 8, Jubilee, 6, Michael, 4, and Benjamin, 2.
We have three Senior Trainers,” Jeremy reports of his family’s connection to the canines. “The Seniors are myself, my wife Alicia, and Hannah, our 15-year old daughter.” Wyatt is not a senior trainer yet, but is working his way up very quickly. Organizing the kids to do the job is a task that must involve copious amounts of love and patience. “We do a weekly rotation of dogs and Junior Trainers – our three middle children – so that each Senior Trainer works with a different dog and Junior Trainer each week.”
The Junior Trainers are also responsible for exercising and grooming the dogs, as well as keeping the yard clean of dog debris or what the Beckers commonly refer to as “dog logs.” Young Jedidiah says his favorite part about training the dogs is doing “scent work,” and training the animals to discern a real scent from a “fake” scent. That’s called “proofing” the dogs.
The littlest two Becker children have the very important job of “socializing and bomb-proofing the dogs, and helping to prepare the dogs for unexpected pouncing and noise,” the Beckers say, laughing through the truth of it. The family unity in work is close to their hearts.
“My wife and I are committed to raising children who are producers in our society. The value of hard-work is integral to who we are and what we are trying to develop in them.” Jeremy developed an acronym for the family’s value expectations.
“We teach them the RICH principles: responsibilty, integrity, consistency, and honesty. Having these principles ingrained in them not only glorifies Jesus Christ, which is our first priority, but prepares them for a life of success, regardless of what they decide to do.”
Duty Dogs, the name the Beckers have chosen for the breeding and training operation, is “a perfect vehicle to teach the RICH principles,” according to dad, who summarizes the positive potential in the business.
“The lives of diabetics with hypoglycemic unawareness can be dramatically changed by a Diabetes Alert Dog. Children with Type 1 can also benefit from a DAD. Parents of a child too young to communicate can be alerted before the blood sugar gets dangerously low,” continues Jeremy. “Often times, children are so busy being children, that they don’t notice or associate the ‘yucky’ feeling that low blood sugar produces until they’re too low. Once again, a DAD can alert the handler, whether parent or child, before the episode gets out of control.”
Meanwhile, in addition to the time he spends working with Bailey and the other DADs at home, young Wyatt is busy raising tens of thousands of dollars for the Junior Diabetes Research Foundation.
“When Wyatt was 6, we decided to join the JDRF Walk to Cure Diabetes merely as a way to meet people in the diabetic community,” mom Alicia says. “Ambitiously, Jeremy encouraged 6-year old Wyatt to raise $6,000 because he was 6. After a month of visiting every place of business in Oakhurst and lots of donations from friends and family, Wyatt raised $10,000 that year”
Wyatt has continued to do that each year since, bringing his grand total to over $50,000, say his parents. “This accomplishment has given our young son invaluable experience talking to business owners, working hard to attain a goal, and watching the Lord bless his endeavor.”
Jeremy is currently the President of JDRF Fresno.
Working together to make their home and the world a better place is what the Beckers do, start to finish.
Speaking of finish, what should happen if Bailey starts his “juice” action and fails to finish, leaving the refrigerator door wide open?
There’s a command for that. Wyatt just says, “fridge,” and Bailey shuts the door. And that’s perfect, because sometimes, at the end of the day, it’s all just about a boy and his dog.
Visit the website for the Beckers’ diabetes alert dog (DADs) business Duty Dogs.