Pet project is reaping great rewards for Clayton native

By Peggy Spear on February 22, 2013

Dogs 4 Diabetics founder Ruefenacht honored with Jefferson Award

Dogs 4 DiabeticsMark Ruefenacht doesn’t mind sloppy wet kisses from his dog. In fact, they can help save his life.

Ruefenacht suffers from Type 1 diabetes, and his dog, Danielle, is trained to recognize when his blood sugar fluctuates. She alerts him by kissing him in the way dogs do best.

The Clayton native has helped train Danielle, and more than 100 other canine companions, for Dogs 4 Diabetics, an organization he started more than a decade ago. It’s been so successful that in January Ruefenacht was honored with the prestigious Jefferson Award, to recognize individuals who promote volunteerism and community service.

“I was so honored to get the award because of its commitment to volunteerism,” he says. “That’s what D4D is founded on.”

Ruefenacht grew up with that commitment himself. Along with his parents, Les and Sandra Ruefenacht, he became interested in working with Guide Dogs for the Blind when he was still a child. An aunt suffered vision impairment because of diabetes and Ruefenacht loved the idea of helping dogs help others.

It became much more personal for him later in life, during a business trip to New York. Traveling with Benton, a guide dog puppy-in-training, Ruefenacht had a severe hypoglycemic episode, and was almost unconscious. Benton, sensing a problem, aggressively aroused him from an incoherent state, allowing him time to recognize the problem and treat it before more harm was done.

The experience planted the seed, and Ruefenacht began doing research – aided by Kaiser – into how dogs could use their phenomenal sense of smell to detect and alert on hypoglycemic episodes in diabetics. Ruefenacht was able to couple his professional experience in forensic science with years of experience with guide dogs for the Blind of San Rafael to develop the procedures now used to train dogs in this unique scent-detection effort.

D4D was officially launched in 2004, and is the premier one of its kind in the world.

These days, in a quiet training facility off of Willow Pass Road in north Concord, staff and a small army of volunteers conduct training for both dogs and their “people” – diabetics who will be assigned a companion. The wait list is long, and D4D has placed teams throughout the West Coast and in Washington D.C.

The dogs are trained to detect the scent, then use different methods to alert the human of a hypoglycemic episode. Some dogs learn to rub a tag-like flag attached to their collar as an alert; others will nuzzle and lick. It really doesn’t matter how they do their job, Reufenacht says – just that they do it.

In March Ruefenacht is headed to Europe on a volunteer vacation as an ambassador for Assistance Dogs International. There he will visit other assistance dog schools and guide dog schools to share information and some highlights about D4D and the Guide Dogs for the Blind puppy raising programs.

It’s the latest in his newfound fame since winning the Jefferson Award; in the past weeks, he says, more than 35 assistance dog schools from all over the world have contacted him asking for the opportunity for him to visit and help with their training programs and puppy raising programs.

Still, D4D is a family affair; Both his parents and sister Amy Callahan’s family are often seen on the streets and trails of Clayton as they foster D4D puppies and dogs, part of that “small army” that has made D4D so successful, Reufenacht says.

For more information or to volunteer to help out or foster a dog, visit www.Dogs4Diabetics.com.

Photo credit: yellowneenerphotography.com

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