Opinion Columns & Blogs

Dogs serve as guardian angels

As with most of these essays, the germ of this one sprouted from an email from a friend. Diana Duncan, president of SLO Volunteers For Animals, wanted to know if I was interested in doing a column on a service cat.

Well, heck yeah, I was interested. I envisioned a tiny, red, service-vested feline ever on the prowl in defense of its owner. I’d heard of service dogs, monkeys, miniature horses, pigs, goats and even a service snake, so a service cat sounded like a nice complement to that menagerie.

A call to the service cat’s owner went unreturned, however, so I filed the concept away until a couple of weeks later when I ran into Jill Meza.

I’d met Jill a number of years earlier when she was in constant companionship with her beloved service dog Cinnamon, a Shibe Inu, one of the most ancient of Japanese breeds.

“I’d rescued Cinnamon from a pack of feral dogs on Christmas Eve day around 2 p.m. when she was 2 months old,” she recalled, as though it were yesterday. “I rescued her, and then she spent the next 151⁄2 years rescuing me.”

Jill’s life has been one of mixed blessings. Her mother, father and brother all died at young ages; Jill wasn’t expected to see 30 due to a genetic liver disease. Despite that diagnosis — or maybe because of it — she worked herself hard, opening Marriott hotels around the world and then working for CBS Radio and TV. Her pace, however, caught up to her to the extent that it would take her an hour and a half to get out of bed.

One day in 1970, a boss at CBS asked her to lunch, but instead took her to Loma Linda University Medical Center, where she eventually underwent experimental surgery. The upside is that the surgery saved her life; the downside is that the side effects of her medication gave her diabetes and atrial fibrillation of the heart, a situation where her heart can speed up, slow down or stop.

As it happened, Jill had Cinnamon trained as a service dog, able to detect when her blood sugar was low and when her heart started to act up. Cinnamon was able to smell certain chemicals in Jill’s body that alerted her.

At night, she’d nudge Jill on her right side to wake her and let her know she had to take a heart pill, or nudge her on the left side to wake her to take some juice for her diabetes. If Jill was awake and her heart was acting up, Cinnamon would go to her toy box and retrieve an empty pill bottle and take it to Jill as a reminder.

Alas, one of the greatest heartbreaks of owning a service animal is that they inevitably die. And when that eventuality happened with Cinnamon, Jill was left without not only her medical lifeline but her best friend as well.

Three weeks after Cinnamon died, though, something very odd happened, something that Jill can’t explain in neat and tidy terms.

She Googled Dogs for Diabetics and a window popped up, no menu of choices, just a window with the picture of a dog under the heading Guardian Angel Diabetic Alert Dogs.

As it turns out, Cinnamon had always been known as Guardian Angel, and the people who used the name for their organization had taken it from a website where they found Cinnamon’s picture and Guardian Angel moniker had been posted.

Yet the thing that’s really inexplicable is that the people at Guardian Angel Diabetic Alert Dogs wanted to know how Jill had contacted them to get an application for a new service dog.

Did she find them on someone’s Facebook? they asked when they called Jill at home. No, she answered. She’d found them online. That was impossible, they replied, because their website had been down for three months for revamping. When Jill hung up and tried to find the site again, it was gone.

A couple of days later, she got another call from the Guardian Angel Diabetic Alert Dogs. They wanted to know if a dog was pictured on the screen. Jill said there was. The agency decided to expedite training for Epie, the little Australian shepherd that Jill had found on the nonexistent site, and made her Jill’s new service dog.

Epie has been Jill’s constant companion for the last year, and hasn’t erred in letting her mistress know when her blood sugar is low or her heart skips a beat.

Guidelines for interacting

According to the Delta Society (www.deltasociety.org), which operates the National Service Dog Center, here are the do’s and don’ts when encountering a service dog and master:

Don’t do anything to interrupt the service dog while it’s performing its tasks.

Speak to the person first. Do not aim distracting or rude noises at the dog.

Do not touch the service dog without asking for, and receiving, permission.

Don’t offer food to the service dog.

Don’t ask personal questions about the handler’s disability, or otherwise intrude on his or her privacy.

Don’t be offended if the handler does not wish to chat about the service dog.

Contact Bill Morem at bmorem@thetribunenews.com or at 781-7852.