If Abbey Karnes blood sugar gets too low, her dog Darby will let her know.
Karnes, a senior at UW-Superior majoring in Studio Art, is a Type 1 diabetic and is dependent on her service dog Darby for both medical and emotional support. Because a dog’s senses operate entirely outside of the periphery of a human’s, Darby can alert Karnes if her blood sugar is too high by bumping Karnes’ hand with her nose; or pawing her hand if it is too low.
Leaving for college can be anxiety inducing for kids and families. But for someone like Karnes who lives with a serious medical condition, leaving for college comes with a whole other set of anxieties. That’s where Darby comes in.
“I got her because I was really nervous about leaving my parents and having to manage diabetes on my own,” Karnes said.
Karnes first met Darby when she left for college three years ago. Darby, a yellow lab and golden retriever mix, was two years old at the time and – coming from a family of professional service dogs – already had extensive training to prepare her to become a diabetic alert dog.
Darby is always on active alert when she’s with Karnes. If Karnes passes out because of hypoglycemia, she could be dead in a matter of minutes. If Darby senses that Karnes blood sugar is too low, she will bring her a bottle of juice; and if Karnes were to pass out, Darby is trained seek help from any nearby people.
“As a Type 1 diabetic, if you do pass out that is a very serious,” she said.
Karnes and Darby have become somewhat of local celebrities at UW-Superior. Karnes maintains a popular TikTok channel where she has amassed over 2.2 million followers. She uses her platform to address stigmatization of living with Type 1 diabetes, educate people about services animals, and show her day-to-day relationship with Darby.
“I hope to reach out to kids that feel lonely with Type 1 diabetes. I’ve been there and it’s not fun,” Karnes said.
Karnes originally hails from Grand Rapids. After completing Postsecondary Enrollment Options, or PSEO – which allows students to earn college credits while in high school – at a local community college, she transferred to UW-Superior.
“I thought it was a very beautiful campus and it felt safe, safer than a lot of other campuses I toured. There seemed to be more opportunities with professors helping me with beyond what they need to do,” Karnes said. “And that is kind of what brought me here.”
Karnes is studying Studio Art and plans to attend graduate school once she graduates. When she is done with her schooling, she hopes to one day be a college level art professor. Her favorite medium is watercolor, which lends itself nicely to the landscapes she likes to paint – which include some of northern Minnesota’s most iconic locations like Gooseberry Falls, Split Rock Lighthouse and the Palisade Head at Tettegouche State Park.
At UW-Superior, Karnes has been amazed by how respectful people on campus are to Darby. Despite Darby’s incessant cuteness, Karnes said people generally know better than to walk up and try to pet her. However, people not knowing proper etiquette is a reoccurring issue for service animals and it is something Karnes is trying to spread awareness of on her TikTok.
“There are a lot of people that don’t know, and I want to break assumptions,” she said.
The bond between a human and their dog is always strong. The bond between Karnes and Darby though is truly something else.