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Diabetes Alert Dog Becomes Girl’s Best Friend, Proves She Doesn’t Have to Fight Her Disease Alone

At age 8, Elle Shaheen was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. With this diagnosis, the life of the girl from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, became one of literal highs and lows. Elle and her parents, Craig Welch and Stefany Shaheen, started vigilantly tracking and managing Elle s blood sugar levels, which meant 8 to 10 injections and 10 to 12 blood sugar tests each day. Even with careful monitoring, Elle s levels would surge and drop unexpectedly, leaving her to feel the taxing and often dangerous physical effects.

Then, two years ago, Elle got a coach – Coach, the diabetes alert dog, to be exact. With his special set of skills, this highly trained canine helps Elle, now 15, detect changes in blood sugar before she feels symptoms. But Coach is more than just a tool. Over the past two years, the doting dog has become a best friend, bedside companion and family member to Elle. Most important, Coach has shown Elle that diabetes is not a battle she has to manage alone but an opponent they can tackle together.

Elle s parents have been so amazed by the life-changing effect Coach has had on their family that they decided to share the dog s story through the book Elle and Coach . written by Elle s mom Stefany Shaheen. Stefany talked to PEOPLE about this passion project and how she hopes the bond between her daughter and Coach reminds everyone that hope can be found in the most surprising places.

What inspired you to write Elle and Coach ?

I started writing the book two years ago, right after we welcomed Coach into our family, because we were so inspired by the impact he has had on Elle s life. Elle was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes almost eight years ago, when she was just 8 years old. The challenge of living with Type 1 diabetes is constantly trying to manage blood sugar levels and keep them in a healthy range. If the blood sugar is too low, it can cause seizures. If it is too high for an extended period of time, that can cause complications, like organ failure and amputation.

My challenge as Elle s mom was to try to figure out how to give her all the tools she needs to keep herself as healthy as possible. Before Coach came, we tried everything, including medical trials. The day-to-day, unfortunately, was still really hard. She has to test her blood sugars 8 to 10 times a day; she takes 8 to 10 shots a day. Every time she eats. Every time she exercises.

We had heard about these diabetes alert dogs that are trained to detect changes in blood sugars. I didn t believe it was possible. But then I saw one of the dogs in action, and saw the little girl he was helping, and I thought we should learn more. Two and a half years later, we welcomed Coach into our lives, and his impact has been really remarkable.

In what ways does he help Elle?

Every day, he is helping her detect high and low blood sugars before she feels symptoms. Keeping in range is what s going to keep her safe and healthy long-term. He s trained to detect when she is out of a healthy range and alert her, and if she doesn t respond, he is trained to alert an adult.

What does he do to alert Elle or an adult?

It really depends on the situation. In the middle of the night, we have had alerts where he has come into my bedroom and put his paws on the bed to get me to wake up and then forces me to follow him into her bedroom. In her case, if she s in school, he is seated in a down position and if she is out of range, he will will sit up and paw at her lap to get her to test.

How has Coach made life easier for Elle?

For the first time, Elle feels in control of her health. As his trainer, she s focused on what she needs to do to take care of herself, so she can do the right thing for him. It s no longer about diabetes; it s about doing what she needs to do for Coach. And that has made a huge difference. For my husband and I, it s the benefit of knowing Coach is there to catch the highs and lows. In her case, it s the added reassurance she doesn t have to do it all on her own. It s been life-changing.

It s incredible. They are together almost 24/7. She jokes and says that sometimes it s like they are an old married couple. He goes to school with her every day. He goes to summer camp and goes to the mall with her and her friends. He sleeps in her bedroom every night. It s remarkable to watch.

What do you hope people take away from Elle and Coach s story?

For me, Coach is a symbol of hope. If you had told me, after Elle was diagnosed and had gone through so many different medical trials, that ultimately a dog would be the difference that makes her life better, I wouldn t have believed you. I hope by sharing this story we can help other families who may benefit from a dog like Coach, and help people understand what diabetes is all about.

Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes are so different, and yet people think it s all the same thing. People often think Elle can cure her diabetes or reverse its effects by changing what she eats. They don t understand it s an autoimmune disease that has no cure. People think insulin is a cure. The reality is, the medicine she needs to stay alive is also medicine that could kill her if the dosage is incorrect. It s a huge stride, but it is not a cure.

Read more about Elle and Coach s amazing story in the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now.

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