When Amy Hess answered her phone and excused herself from her office desk last week, she summoned her dog, Enzo, to follow.
After all, Enzo is an “extension” of herself now, Hess had written in her blog days before.
“We’re a team,” she said.
Enzo is Hess’ diabetic alert dog, who warns Hess, a type-1 diabetic, when her blood sugar is too low or high.
The black lab is also rescued.
Enzo is a graduate from the Cass County Heads Up Hounds, which has been rescuing dogs in the Omaha area and training them to be diabetic alert dogs since July.
Co-founder Jamie Cook said the organization was established to solve two problems: the overpopulation of dog shelters and the costliness of dogs.
Or, as the Heads Up Hounds website motto puts it, “from rescue to rescuing.”
Because the dogs are rescued, Cook said, her organization is able to sell diabetic alert dogs at about a quarter of their average $20,000 price.
The nonprofit doesn’t use pure breeds, she said, and its alert dog training is “very focused,” which also lowers the cost.
“It all started with people with a rescue background, people with a training background, and someone who needed a dog,” Cook said.
In fact, she said, the group started after a type-1 diabetic her husband was working with wouldn’t let his parents buy him a then too-expensive dog.
“Most clients seem to be kids going away to college,” Cook said. “Parents, who are used to checking on blood sugar levels, worry about kids moving away.”
Cook, who worked in shelters, she said, teamed up with Russ Dillon of Omaha, who has a background in military and police dog training.
The rescued dogs are trained to smell and read their owner’s saliva, Cook said, and then react accordingly.
Hess said she’s still learning to listen to Enzo.
“Alert dogs don’t misbehave,” she said. “When Enzo is riled up, my first instinct is to try to calm him down. And it isn’t enough that I acknowledge he’s freaking out. He has to see me read my blood sugar before he’ll calm down.”
The Heads Up Hounds dogs are trained at Cook’s Cass County home, Cook said.
“We like them to be trained in a home environment,” she said.
Cook said she takes soon-to-be diabetic alert dogs into real-world environments, such as restaurants and theaters, to prepare them to be with their owners at all times.
They also interact with domestic “obstacles” such as her cats and pet dogs, she said, and practice taking direction from her two children.
The group gives its dogs just enough encouragement to be a “tease,” Cook said, so that they’ll eventually form solid bonds with their owners.
“I get attached to all of them,” she said. “That’s the hardest part.”
Cook said the dog-selecting process “starts with the person” — their lifestyle and what dog makes sense for them. Heads Up Hounds, she said, works with local shelters and conducts temperament tests on dogs between the ages of 1 and 2.
Hess said she had a very specific vision for Enzo.
“They nailed it on the head,” she said. “I wanted a black lab and, boy, did I get the perfect one.”
Hess, who had recently suffered the loss of a golden retriever, she said, was drawn to Heads Up Hounds by its “rescue aspect.”
“I never thought I’d have another dog in my life,” Hess said. “I just didn’t think I’d have the room in my heart.”
She wrote in her blog less than a week before meeting Enzo that he would bring a “peace” to her life “that’s been missing since July 27, 1986,” the day Hess was diagnosed with diabetes.
Since then, the two have been inseparable.
As for Cook, she said Enzo’s departure was bittersweet.
“I probably shouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t feel that way,” she said. “It’s like sending your kids off to college.”