HELENA — Shawn Ratchford understands what it's like to wake up in the middle of the night feeling a bit off. It happens sometimes when his blood sugar has dropped too low while he sleeps.
"You're really kind of out of it when you're in that state," he said.
He could soon have some assistance dealing with such matters in the form of a 2-year-old hound cross named Archie. About to be a graduate of Carroll College's Human-Animal Bond program, the dog is set to be adopted by Ratchford, 28, who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes seven years ago.
Over the course of the school year, senior Rachelle Timmer has trained Archie to recognize the telltale scent of Ratchford's low blood sugar. Ratchford hopes that, eventually, the animal will be able to rouse him in his sleep if Archie senses the problem during the night.
Archie is a star pupil in the groundbreaking Carroll program, which is quickly gaining traction, though it's still relatively new. It's the brainchild of Professor Anne Perkins, who took a sabbatical in 2004 to study, essentially, how animals and humans can enrich each others' lives. She ended up visiting various nonprofit organizations specializing in training for therapy and service animals — both dogs and horses. What came out of those trips was an unprecedented idea: An animal-training undergraduate program with a solid basis in social and natural sciences.
Because it hadn't been done before, it was up to Perkins to develop the curriculum. It's been evolving ever since.
Currently, the Human-Animal Bond program is only offered as a minor, though it's set to be upgraded to a major and receive a new name, anthrozoology, a word that is already used occasionally to describe the interdisciplinary study of human and animal interaction.
Students in the program must take several courses before choosing an "equine" or "canine" concentration. Those going the canine route can eventually take a yearlong lab through which they are assigned dogs from the Lewis and Clark Humane Society to train and care for outside of the classroom.
Throughout the coursework, students learn about everything from the anatomy and basic nutritional needs of the animals they will be working with to fundamental theories about learning — like how, for example, to train a rat, said Assistant Professor Leslie Angel. With a background in experimental psychology and the study of animal behavior at the University of Montana, she jumped at the chance to teach classes in the Carroll program.
The school also recruited Tom Brownlee, a local dog trainer with an extensive range of experience that includes police and service canines. He's worked closely with the four students training dogs this year. In addition to Archie, the four-legged members of the group are Sampson, a German shepherd, and Coal, a black Lab, both specializing in tracking and narcotics detection, as well as Chance, a mutt learning mobility assistance.
The dogs are technically foster animals through the Humane Society, where a specialist selected promising canine training candidates. Anyone interested will have to go through the Humane Society to adopt one of the dogs once they're done with the program. Sampson and Chance are still looking for homes, Perkins said.
Ratchford is hoping to have formal ownership of Archie soon, which will make Archie the first dog that will go from the Carroll program straight to an owner ready to use its particular skill set.
Archie's training has been tailored to address Ratchford's specific needs. The very idea to train one of the dogs in diabetic alerts grew out of casual conversations that Ratchford had with Timmer at Starbucks, where he works. Learning of Ratchford's disease and his general plan to get a dog, Timmer came to Brownlee with the idea.
The process involved collecting sweat samples on cotton balls from Ratchford at moments when he experienced low blood sugar. Those samples were then frozen and used throughout Archie's training. When the dog recognized the scent, he was rewarded with one of his favorite toys, learning, essentially, "that smell means the best thing ever," Timmer said. Slowly, Archie learned to sniff out samples when hidden somewhere on an individual's body, like in a pocket, and get excited. That will serve as an alert for Ratchford when his blood sugar drops.
He has already grown attached to the animal.
"He's a radical dog," Ratchford said. "I've fallen in love with Archie."
He was not the easiest dog to train initially, Timmer said, though he eventually decided he wanted to be a good boy. She knows it will be hard to let him go after spending a year with him.
Timmer found herself in the program after realizing that the pre-veterinarian route wasn't quite what she wanted. It's ended up being a good fit.
"I've been a dog person since I was born," she said.
Perkins is hoping the students will have an edge if they want to pursue dog training in the future, with an academic background to support the technical skills. She acknowledged that it's a concept that could take off at a school like Carroll because of its small size. It's been helped along with support from the community — private donations, for example, have helped provide the funds necessary to care for the dogs throughout the school year, she said.
But the idea is already catching on outside of Helena. Perkins frequently gets phone calls about the program and has spoken about it to colleges and groups across the country and beyond, at one point making a trip to Greece. Other members of the program, like Angel, note the impact the Carroll model could have.
"I think it's really cutting edge," she said.
A graduation ceremony for the four dogs leaving the program is scheduled for April 19 at 7 p.m.