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Companion dog for diabetes keeps Upland kicker in check

Luke Van Ginkel relies on his best friend

The best-known wonder dog named Astro was from "The Jetsons," the futuristic family featured in the 1962 television cartoon series.

In 2014, Luke Van Ginkel, the senior kicker for Upland High, thinks his 3-year-old Labrador retriever named Astro is every bit a wonder dog.

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"I think he's a lifesaver. I think he's pretty amazing," Van Ginkel said.

Astro carries around his own school identification card attached to a harness with a patch that says, "Service Dog. Working. Do Not Touch."

Astro is with Van Ginkel almost everywhere — in the classroom, on the football sideline, in his bedroom at home.

Van Ginkel has Type 1 diabetes, and Astro's job is to alert him when his blood sugar count becomes too high or too low.

"I guess I put out a special scent when my blood sugar is high or low and he can identify that scent when he smells it," Van Ginkel said.

During training as a puppy, Astro was introduced to samples of Van Ginkel's saliva that were taken when his blood sugar was out of normal range. Now, Astro alerts Van Ginkel by grabbing a red stuffed toy that resembles a bone, or he starts bowing on his paws. The dog received his special training at the Riverside-based Canine Hope for Diabetics.

"It's pretty amazing what he can do," Van Ginkel said.

While walking to the football field on a leash, Astro alerted Van Ginkel by trying to grab the toy attached to Van Ginkel's waist by a Velcro belt.

Van Ginkel stopped and tested himself. He pricked his finger, put the speck of blood in a glucose meter and it came out high at 255.

"Good boy," he told Astro.

Van Ginkel pulled a syringe from his bag, stuck it in a bottle of insulin, then gave himself an injection in his right arm as Astro looked on.

"He's kind of like a defense system — one more line of defense," Van Ginkel said. "I can keep myself safe. It's kind of a way to sleep easy at night, because he's on guard when I'm not conscious."

Monitoring blood sugar is critical for Van Ginkel. He had a major episode of seizures when he was younger and was unconscious for close to 48 hours, his father, Peter, said.

Type 1 diabetes is a result of the pancreas not producing enough insulin, which is needed to allow glucose to enter cells and produce energy.

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"A lot of people think you get diabetes from eating a lot of sugar,'' Van Ginkel said. "It takes awhile to explain why I have Astro and why he's necessary to help me out and monitor my blood sugar and keep me safe."

When Astro gets time off at lunch, he's kept in a crate in the administration building, where everyone competes to watch over him.

Along with sensing blood sugar levels, Astro gets to be a normal dog too. Van Ginkel has taught him how to fetch — as in fetch his kicking tee. During games, Van Ginkel's mother, Lori, keeps Astro on a leash on the sideline, but there could be a time Astro gets to run out onto the field to show off his fetching skills.

He's also a pretty good "chick magnet," Van Ginkel said.

Most of all, though, Astro is Van Ginkel's best friend.

"There's few people I care about more," Van Ginkel said. "I don't know what I'd do without him."

Twitter: @LATSondheimer

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