On the second anniversary of Ron Santo's death Monday, the Cubs legend's widow says that she couldn't be more excited about "extending his legacy" by pushing a cause "Ron would have loved."
The Ron and Vicki Santo Diabetes-Alert Dog Foundation is in the final stages of becoming a nonprofit charity with a goal of helping people with diabetes buy alert dogs that could save their lives by literally sniffing out dangerous blood-sugar levels, Vicki says. In the meantime, she's hoping someone will buy one of those specially trained dogs during the auction portion of Saturday's Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation fundraising 33rd annual Chance of a Lifetime Gala at Chicago's McCormick Place.
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"We would love people to get in a bidding war," says Sue Samson, a trainer at Alert Service Dogs, a service in Indiana and Colorado that trains diabetes-alert dogs and has been working with Vicki. Just as dogs with keen senses of smell can be trained to sniff out drugs and bombs or find human remains, dogs can be trained to detect the chemical changes that occur in the body of someone with diabetes, Samson says.
Ron and Vicki Santo had never heard of such dogs, but they saw evidence of that power in their own pet near the end of Santo's life, Vicki says.
"The dog we had, Joker, was the most timid dog, and Ron was such a big presence," Vicki says. The Hall of Fame baseball player could get very excitable during his color commentary on the WGN radio broadcasts of Cubs games. Ron Santo's big personality and gesticulations continued long after a game and often scared Joker, who had no special training.
"He would talk about that dog on the air," Vicki remembers. "He'd say, 'This dog hates me.'"
People told Ron that "when you bring home the game, you should just go in the closet with a glass of wine," Vicki says with a chuckle. Then one day Joker helped save Ron's life.
"I was in the basement, and Joker came and got me," Vicki says, explaining how the dog wouldn't leave her alone until she followed Joker into a bedroom where she found Ron unable to get off the bed because his blood sugar was so low. While the body odor is unnoticeable to the human nose, a trained dog can detect a change in blood sugar and alert the owner as much as 30 minutes before a glucometer medical device would warn of danger, says Vicki, who figures Joker must have had some innate abilities along those lines.
The winning bidder at the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation auction will be matched with an 8-week-old puppy that will require more than a year of training at a cost of about $20,000, says Samson.
"We don't just take any dog and see if they can do this," Samson says, adding that dogs bred for working, such as border collies and retrievers, generally make the best scent dogs.
Nash, a Labrador retriever matched to a 10-year-old boy named Cody in Alabama, recently went beyond the call by barking out the danger to a younger student recently diagnosed with diabetes, Samson says.
"The kids were at lunch, and Cody's dog was taking a rest when the dog started alerting," Samson says. "As it turns out, he was alerting on a child in the classroom across the hall."
Vicki says she loves that story.
To find out more about the foundation auction, visit jdrfillinois.org. You can find out more about the dogs by visiting alertservicedogs.com or calling (800) 518-1810.
"It gives the kids (with diabetes) a kind of power," Vicki says. "Other kids are like, 'Wow. That dog is so cool.'"
Children with diabetes sometimes are shy and hesitant to participate in sports and other activities because they worry about how their blood-sugar levels might change, Vicki says. A dog could give them confidence.
"The kids are not afraid because they know they are being watched," Vicki says.
While Ron Santo was dedicated to helping researchers find a cure, anything that helps people with diabetes avoid some of the issues Santo endured during his life would make her late husband happy, Vicki says.
"He loved dogs," Vicki say. "I think he would have been so proud to share the knowledge of what these dogs can do."