Service dog for priest is a healthy move

Lisa Johnston |

The star of the show mostly kept to himself, tucking behind a folding chair.
But that was OK. He wasn't there to socialize.
In fact, that was the point. Francis, a black labrador retriever, is a service dog -- a diabetic-alert dog -- undergoing training to help Father Jack Siefert, pastor of St. Mary Magdalen Parish in Brentwood. Francis' job is to help Father Siefert keep track of his blood-sugar level and alert the priest when his level strays out of the normal range so he can avoid adverse effects such as a diabetic coma.
At an assembly Sept. 19 for students of St. Mary Magdalen School, principal Kathy Wiseman and representatives of Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers talked about the role of medical-alert dogs such as Francis. The speakers stressed the need to allow Francis room to do his work without interruption and asked the students to pledge that they won't pet Francis.
Cheryl Trefzger, director of outreach for Warren Retrievers, asked the students to say a prayer for Francis to keep him healthy and do his job. The lab, just under 11 months old, still is being trained.
The dog already has had an impact. Shortly after arriving at the rectory in Brentwood from a farm in Virginia two days before the assembly, Francis sensed that Father Siefert's blood-sugar level was out of range, even though the priest was in the church and the dog hadn't met the priest yet. Father Siefert was told of the alert, tested his blood sugar and, sure enough, Francis was right.
People have told the Warren staff that their dogs, with their sense of smell, have signaled a medical alert as far away from them as five miles. Francis can be trained to dial 911 on a phone in case of an emergency and to bring a juice bottle to Father Siefert if the priest's blood-sugar level needs a jolt.
After the assembly, Father Siefert explained that his biggest challenge has been at night and occasionally at other times when he doesn't sense his instability and possible dangers to his health. "I have become immune to the symptoms," Father Siefert said.
So far, when Francis senses Father Siefert's blood sugar is out of range, the normally calm dog becomes nervous and anxious. At night, Francis will awake Father Siefert before he becomes ill. Eventually, Francis will alert him with his paw.
Wiseman and others at the school initiated the idea of getting the service dog. Parishioners have been raising money in honor of their pastor's 25th ordination anniversary to cover the $25,000 cost of the dog's training. They have about $20,000 thus far.
"Do I feel worthy? No. But do I feel honored? Yes," Father Siefert said.
Later, he added, "I love those folks," referring to parishioners and school families along with parishioners at his former parishes.
God provides, Father Siefert said, and what people have to do is discern what He's telling them.
Father Siefert already has a pug named Oliver. He has had other dogs, including a golden retriever, Queenie, as a child.
As of Sept. 19, Francis hadn't accompanied Father Siefert to Mass. He had been with him in the confessional, however. Trefzger of Warren Retrievers told the students that Francis "took a vow that he won't repeat what's said in the confessional."For informationTo learn about Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers:• See• Call (540) 543-2307• Write to SDWR, P.O. Box 647, Madison, VA 22727To
contribute to the fundraising for Francis, send a check with Francis
Fund on the memo line to St. Mary Magdalen Parish, Attn: Francis Fund,
2618 S. Brentwood Blvd., Brentwood, MO 63144.

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