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Meet Oakley, the diabetes service dog who wears PPE to Austin Peay chemistry labs

Oakley during a chemistry lab early in the semester.

(Posted on Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021)

The photo tells the tale.

Oakley – a diabetes service dog who attends classes with her human, agriculture sophomore Alex Baum – stands with head down and shoulders slouched.

Oakley isn’t thrilled with the garb she’s wearing – tiny pants, a shirt, goggles and booties – all designed to keep her and other service animals safe in Austin Peay State University’s chemistry labs.

Nonetheless, Oakley – as shown in the photo – tolerates the gear. All to protect Baum.

Baum, who started at Austin Peay in August 2020 near the beginning of the pandemic, was a bit skittish about how Oakley might behave as the university transitioned to more in-person classes.

“Especially in lab,” she said. “She’s never been in a lab setting. She’s never had clothes on her let alone goggles or booties, so I was a little scared about how she’d react or how well she’d keep it on.”

Baum eased Oakley into the protective equipment ahead of the first lab.

Baum and Oakley outside the Sundquist Science Complex.

“She would always try to take off her goggles, but she knows now to leave it on,” she said. “Now, she lays down to sleep. Dr. (Lisa) Sullivan didn’t even know she was there the first day” of the general chemistry class that accompanies the lab taught by Dr. Leslie Hiatt.

“We were at least an hour into class,” said Sullivan, chair of the Department of Chemistry. “I had no idea, Oakley is so well behaved in class, you don’t even know she’s there.”

The department requires service animals to wear protective gear, especially to keep them safe from chemical spills.

“They need to be as protected as the humans are in lab,” Sullivan said. “We don’t want Alex to be working at the bench and spill an amount of an acid or a base. That’s typically what we have in gen chem.

“As she gets to upper-division, she will have much more dangerous chemicals, and her dog will be right there, and the dog might get the chemical on her body or her eyes or her feet,” she added.

The lab’s online messaging board introduced Oakley to the class with the photo mentioned above and the text, “It was a dog-gone great day in chem lab this morning! If Oakley can dress appropriately for lab, you can too!”

Baum with Oakley in the Sundquist Science Complex atrium.

Meeting ‘Oakley the diabetic dog’

Baum got Oakley in February 2020 before she headed off to college.

She hails from Belleville, Illinois, and has had a sensor for several years that alerts her to low blood sugar levels. But as she got older, she started sleeping through nighttime alerts.

“My parents always had to come down and wake me up,” said Baum, who learned she had diabetes when she was 10. “When they found out I was going to be four hours away (at Austin Peay), they just were, ‘We have to do something,’ so we ended up doing research and getting a service dog.”

Baum created an Instagram account that documents her and Oakley’s journey – from getting to know each other to when the duo set off for Austin Peay. The account also shares some of the lows that Oakley has alerted Baum to.

Oakley has made the transition from home life to college life easier.

“She hit a big milestone last week,” Baum said in late October. “I had my first low in class. Usually when she alerts, especially at night, she will jump on me, and she’ll act crazy so I can wake up. But when we were in class, she started nudging me and putting my hand on top of her head.

“She kept repeating it, and I’m like, ‘OK, something’s going on, so I checked and I was low.”

As for Oakley, one of the Instagram posts shows her sitting at the front gate during one of her first days at Austin Peay.

The text assures her fans, “I am slowly getting used to the campus, but I think I will be just fine!”

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