Black lab Francis trained to sense Siefert’s blood sugar changes
By Linda Briggs-Harty
Ordinarily Father Jack Siefert, pastor at St. Mary Magdalen Church in Brentwood, is the draw for students at the parish school. The popular priest, who plays football with the kids and cooks Italian meals for the adults, has no lack of friendly boosters. They refer to him as Father Jack.
At an assembly on Friday, Siefert took a bit of a back seat to the black dog that will be more than his best friend. Francis the 10-month-old Labrador retriever service dog lay by Father Jack’s side doing his newly assigned job: relying on a keen sense of smell to detect blood sugar changes in his master.
Siefert has Type 1 diabetes. He has been relying on varied treatment measures since he was diagnosed at three years old.
“I don’t feel worthy of such a blessing,” said the priest, who has the same-colored brown eyes as his canine service partner. Francis the service dog joins Oliver, a black pug that Siefert brought home a year ago. He’s always had a pet dog or two.
The St. Mary Magdalen pastor has his school principal Kathy Wiseman to thank for the gift that comes with a steep price tag — service dogs cost $25,000 and up. Reading about the breakthrough treatment over a year ago, Wiseman started the Francis Fund to raise the amount needed to bring Francis to Father Jack. The initiative corresponds with Siefert’s 25th anniversary of ordination.
At the assembly on Sept. 19, an anonymous donor gave $5,000, bringing the total raised to over $18,000.
On hand to teach the St. Mary Magdalen School and broader community about the new resident in the rectory were Erin Coulter, a trainer, and Cheryl Trefzger, a representative from Francis’s breeder, Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers of Madision, Va.
Kimberlie Gregg, a diabetic from St. Peters, also weighed in about the benefits she’s seen going to the dogs herself, so to speak, in the treatment of hyperglycemic unawareness. She told those gathered that her dog Charlie alerts her of blood sugar changes, because her body can no longer sense danger signs before problems occur. Siefert has the same unawareness, Gregg said.
When students asked about her dog’s tricks, Gregg said Charlie’s most important feat is letting her know when she’s not well. The service dogs nudge or paw their diabetic owners when they smell something “off” in the blood sugar. They’re trained as well to use a device that contacts emergency personnel if owners become unresponsive, due to high or low sugar levels.
Along with highlighting Francis’s skills, the Warren Retrievers rep Trefzger spoke mostly to the juveniles in the crowd about the need to refrain from petting Father Jack’s pooch.
“Francis is a working dog,” she said. “He will get distracted by touching.”
Like all service dogs, Francis must learn by continued training to key into Siefert’s specific signals. The training he had in his early months at the Virginia farm will be followed up throughout the dog’s lifetime, Trefzger said.
Service dog trainer Coulter said she’d been working with Siefert for several days to familiarize Francis with the priest’s routine. Francis will accompany him to the confessional, to the altar during Mass and even to the local gym, since the priest likes to lift weights and stay physically fit.
“Francis has been given a dispensation to sit in on confessions,” Trefzger kidded.
Once the students headed back to class after the assembly, Father Jack led Francis on a leash through the main hallway in the grade school. The sleek black lab walked in lockstep with his new master, who was dressed in long, black cassock.
As far as she knows, Siefert is the first clergyman to rely on a diabetic service dog, Trefzger said.