Benjamin Dennison

Lori Dennison’s youngest son Benjamin was born facing numerous medical issues. Dennison knew she needed to rely on the expertise of healthcare professionals to help him.


It wasn’t long before she discovered that help would also come in the form of the family’s pet cat. This realization led to the life-changing addition of Johnnie, a diabetes alert dog who has been by Benjamin’s side for nearly his entire life.

Dennison lives in rural Richland, not far from Elk Point. She and her husband, Glenn, were already parents to two boys – Will, now 17, and Isaac, now 16, when Benjamin was born 10 years ago.

Benji, as he is often referred to, has faced a daunting medical diagnosis since birth: congenital hyperinsulinism (which causes abnormally high insulin levels and frequent bouts with low blood sugar), insulin dependent diabetes, intestinal failure and kidney disease.

It was during those first days – and long nights – that Dennison’s cat exhibited a connection with Benji that no one in the family expected.

“When Benji came home from the hospital, we had a cat named Holly who would come to wake us whenever Benji was doing poorly during the night,” said Dennison. “She seemed to have an ability to tell when he was not feeling well. She was particularly nurturing toward him (but) didn’t really care for the other children.”

Before this, Holly was essentially a barn cat who moved indoors after the family discovered she was declawed. Sadly, Holly died when Benji was just a couple years old. Those two years, though, left a lasting impact on the Dennison family and led them on the path to finding a trained medical alert dog for Benji.

Dennison began to read and research and speak with trainers. She found an online community of parents who also had children with hyperinsulinism to be a particularly valuable resource.

“We researched breeds and decided that a mixed breed would be the best option to reduce health concerns (with the dog),” explained Dennison. “At one point we looked into bloodhounds as they are excellent for diabetic alert, but they are just too large for a small child.”

Dennison worked with a private trainer and consultant in eastern Iowa who matched them with Johnnie, who was three years old at the time she came to live with the Dennisons.

“Yes, she’s a girl named Johnnie,” said Dennison. “That’s what happens when you let a three-year-old name a dog!”

Johnnie is part Shiba Inu, a breed not traditionally used for service work. The Shiba Inu, a spitz breed originating in Japan and first bred for hunting, is also a breed that generally requires experienced owners.

“Fortunately for us, she possesses only a few traits of her breed,” said Dennison. “I’m not sure what she is mixed with, but her small size and sunny disposition make her the perfect match for Benji.”

As with all diabetic alert dogs, Johnnie, now 9, was scent trained to identify the smell that a diabetic person has when their blood sugar is outside of the normal range. Johnnie’s training took place in a nursing home. In addition, Johnnie was trained to be in multiple public settings just as any other service dog to ensure she could demonstrate assertive yet not aggressive behavior.

When Johnnie senses that Benji needs help, she lets the rest of the family know very clearly.

“Johnnie paws at the feet of my husband and me when she senses that Benji’s blood sugar has dropped,” said Dennison. “When she thinks that her alerts have not been addressed fully she tends to emit what is know as a ‘shiba howl.’ It’s a tough noise to describe, but it can’t be ignored.”

Johnnie came to the Dennison home when Benji was a preschooler and medically at his lowest point.

“After she joined our family, I remember her frequently having a kind of wild look in her eyes as she watched us frantically try to keep (Benji) stable on a daily basis,” said Dennison. “Her demeanor always remained calm, although I’m sure she must have been thinking ‘What did I get myself into?’”

Johnnie soon eased into her role as Benji’s diabetes alert dog. It didn’t take long for Dennison and the rest of the family to realize that Johnnie would also become Benji’s friend.

“Benji has a great appreciation of the importance that Johnnie plays in his wellness,” said Dennison. “They truly are best friends. Johnnie is a great companion for Benjamin in addition to being a service dog. (Benji) is a very social boy who unfortunately misses school frequently due to his medical conditions. (Johnnie) provides him with affection and reassurance.”

That need for the other’s presence is equally as strong for Johnnie. The family has witnessed how difficult it is for Johnnie when Benji has been hospitalized and the two aren’t able to be together.

“We have witnessed Johnnie experience periods of what appears to be depression when Benjamin has been hospitalized for lengthy periods of time,” said Dennison.

When Johnnie and Benji are reunited, their bond is evident.

“Johnnie has a hard time being a service dog when she visits Benji in the hospital because she gets so excited to visit him,” said Dennison. “Luckily, the children’s hospital that we use is happy to accommodate her and she is able to visit frequently. I believe that Johnnie is his (Benji’s) favorite visitor.

As Benji has grown older, some of his medical needs have become easier to manage for both his parents and Johnnie.

“Benji has transitioned to an insulin pump that is more advanced in its ability to detect and treat blood sugar variations,” said Dennison. “This means less work for us as parents, less work for Johnnie, and more time for Benji and Johnnie to just be buddies.”

After seven years together, Johnnie, Benji and the rest of the Dennison family are like a well-oiled machine. While Johnnie always has the option of undergoing additional training, Dennison said they don’t feel it’s necessary. In fact, Dennison added, Johnnie’s training as an alert dog is so well honed that she has used her abilities to try to help others. That became evident at a doctor’s appointment for Benji.

“I was horrified once at a clinic appointment several years ago when she would not leave a doctor alone,” Dennison recalled. “This was very unlike her. She was not only pawing at him but also jumped on his lap. Her behavior got progressively worse before the doctor confided that he is diabetic and had skipped lunch. I ended up sending her (Johnnie) out of the room with Benji’s nurse while the doctor excused himself for a few minutes.

Now that Johnnie is nine years old, Dennison is looking ahead to the reality that Johnnie will not always be by Benji’s side as his diabetes alert dog.

“We’ve started to look into options for a service dog for when Johnnie ‘retires,’” said Dennison. “She’s showing some minimal signs of aging at this point, so it’s not something we are actively pursuing yet.”

Since the Dennison’s brought Johnnie home, the service dog industry has greatly expanded. With that expansion comes the risk of having a service dog that may not be as well trained as Johnnie. Dennison and her husband are looking into their options, including organizations in Minnesota and Utah. They are also considering an option even closer to home.

“My husband and I have considered training Benji’s next service dog ourselves as we have learned so much from Johnnie’s trainers and also from Johnnie,” said Dennison.

Dennison feels hopeful for Benji’s immediate future and for the years ahead.

“His diabetes is currently managed well with a closed loop insulin pump and continuous glucose monitoring,” said Dennison. “As he has gotten older, technology has caught up to his complex needs and we’re hopeful that his future will include an artificial pancreas.”

Dennison also believes that Johnnie’s impact on Benji’s life will stay with him well into adulthood.

“I can see Benji choosing to continue to have a service dog as an adult in order to live independently,” said Dennison. “As parents, we want him to be able to go to college, date and pursue his interests just like we want for any of our children. He’s an intelligent young man who has a lot to offer to the world, and I believe that as an adult, having a service dog will reduce barriers for him.”