The story of a boy living with Type 1 and his family's journey to raise and train a diabetic alert dog.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Lowest A1c Since Before Type 1 Diagnosis

Today we are grateful because Austin's A1c dropped from 7.9 in March to 7.2 today. This is the lowest average 90 day blood sugar we have seen in the eight years he has lived with Type 1. (The closest we've gotten to this number is 7.3 in 2011.) It's especially exciting because when his average 90 day blood sugar is segmented into 'within', 'above' and 'below' BG goal, the below goal represents 0%. A low A1c can be achieved by a lot of low blood sugars but as you can imagine that's not optimal. The goal is to achieve an A1c of 7.5 or lower by maintaining one's blood sugar in your target/goal range. Austin's goal range is between 80 and 140 mg/dl.

We attribute Austin's A1c today in part to Bo. Over the past six months, Bo's alerts have become more consistent and reliable. Additionally, he continues to demonstrate his willingness to work for us. He is not perfect but he is showing excellent and marked progress. We will continue to work to tighten Austin's blood sugar control with the goal of ensuring his long term health and well being. There is no question Bo will help us achieve tighter control sooner, rather than later.

Austin and Bo First Day of 7th Grade

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Today I Turned Two

I walked in the meadow.
I ate grass.

I played fetch in the field.

I posed for pictures.

I found my family's brick in the school yard.

I practiced 'leave.'

I went exploring.
I found a tennis ball.

I rested in the sculpture garden.
I got brushed.
I brought Syl presents for my birthday.
I got a birthday gift from Syl and Gil.
I played football.
I got rubs from Syl.
I hung out with my boy.
I got a cupcake treat from my Mama.
I got a new toy.
Our two year old pup. August 23, 2014.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Video: Practicing Stimulus Control

In May 2014, I wrote a post about stimulus control. It explains what stimulus control is and how we practice it. Our goal is for Bo's responses to our commands to be what's considered 'under good stimulus control.'  In this video, Bo is behind me and I'm giving him commands without looking at him and without hand signals. The goal of the exercise is for him to give the correct behavior the first time I give a command. I practice stimulus control with him in different ways to improve his ability to respond to verbal commands no matter where he is in position to me. There is an easy to understand post about stimulus control on the Dog Willing LLC Web site.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

If at First You Don't Succeed, Try, Try, Try Again

Waiting our turn for recall with distractions.
We took Bo for his AKC Community Canine test this afternoon -- a test we've been preparing for as part of a six week group class with four other dogs and their humans. We arrived at the test site an hour before the test to exercise Bo and get him acclimated to the location. By the time we met up with our instructor, her assistants and the other class members he was less energetic than when we arrived. 

Recall with distractions.
We went through each test item as a group -- taking turns with greetings from strangers, walking past distractions of people and dogs, sitting and staying in a small group, holding a down stay with distractions and recalling with distractions. Everyone in the test group passed and we were filling out our paperwork when someone realized we had forgotten the last test item. It was the item that tested our dog's ability to wait at a doorway until given the command to proceed. This is a skill I practice and use with Bo every day. I had no concerns about Bo's ability to pass this test item. I had been most concerned about his ability to pass the 'leave it' test. While he has a reliable 'leave' at home, he struggles with 'leave' in public. 

Our 'doorway' was a narrow passage that served as an entry into the park where we were testing. It was formed by a large rock wall that had an opening in it for foot traffic.  A granite post divided the entry in half. We had to walk between the post and one side of the wall. Easy enough, right? Not so much.

The granite post had dog urine on it and Bo wouldn't 'leave it,' so we never got to having him wait at the entry way.  He was so locked on the scent I couldn't get his attention to give him a command to wait. He had his nose down on the ground and was sniffing intently. So, we failed the test. 

We left knowing we have more work to do to teach a reliable 'leave' in public. This is a skill that is critical for a service dog and he needs to be 'bomb proof'. We will be seeking out new and creative ways to practice and train this behavior using things that we can see and things we can't see, like dog urine. 

'Tis a lesson you should heed:
Try, try, try again.  
If at first you don't succeed,
Try, try, try again.

This failure will make us work even harder and I'm confident, as a result, we will be stronger and better for it.

Friday, August 15, 2014

I Tested Bo This Morning

I tested Bo this morning. It was 6:45 am. I didn't need to go to work, so I was lying in bed watching the news. Bo was nestled at my side with his head resting on mine. We had been like this for awhile before he put a paw on my chest. Unlike usual, I didn't respond to it. I wanted to see how persistent he would be if I didn't respond to his signal. 

Bo pawed me again. He pawed me several times before pressing both his front legs into my chest in what looked like a bow. 

I moved him off me.

He sat at my side and looked over me. 

He pawed my face. His rough paw pad scratching my cheek.  

I looked at him silent and moved my body position. He then stood up and went to the edge of the bed. 

I thought he was going to jump off it.

Instead, he stood at the edge of the bed making eye contact with me and then looking at the floor. 

I remained silent. 

He responded by lying down with his body facing mine. His head was held high in attention. He was staring at me intently and he groaned. He followed it with a succession of whines upon which I broke my silence. 

I asked him if we needed to check. 

He immediately jumped off the bed and went to Austin's room. 

When I got to Austin's room. He was on Austin's bed sniffing around Austin's head. 

I checked Austin and he was 79.  After I treated Austin with juice, I rewarded Bo with food, praise and his favorite game. When the party was over he hopped onto my bed, curled up and went back to sleep.  

Bo after being rewarded for his alert.

He passed my test. He was persistent in his alerting and he used different behaviors in attempting to get me to respond to him. The entire exercise was only a couple of minutes. If he didn't continue alerting or trying to get my attention, I still would have checked Austin's blood sugar. I've never tested Bo in this way before and I may never do it again.

Have you ever tested your DAD in a similar way?  What did it look like? 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

One Dog, Two Homes

Bo with Syl and Gil at their home.
Bo has two homes and two families that love him as their own. He has our family of three and he has our neighbors, Gil and Syl. Ever since Bo was 10-weeks-old, he has been spending his days at Gil and Syl's house while we spend ours at work and school. At their house, he socializes, plays, exercises and naps all while getting a lot of love and attention. We have referred to Gil and Syl's house as Bo's vacation home because of the pure joy and excitement he exudes every time he goes there.

I'm certain our journey with Bo wouldn't be what it is today if it weren't for Gil and Syl taking him during the day and nurturing his development. They have provided him countless socialization opportunities, practiced and reinforced trained behaviors, supported his DAD training and provided me with guidance and support on dog ownership. They have been a major part of the village it has taken to raise and train our pup.

In Bo's first year, Syl attended our private training sessions with Helen. In doing so, she was able to maintain training consistency between our house and theirs. She has also educated me on many things I didn't know. For example, I had Bo micro-chipped but I never had an ID tag made for his collar until Syl mentioned it to me. She has also identified minor illnesses and injury at early onset that I had missed -- things like conjunctivitis and a cut paw pad. I think she was even the person who told me about the need to register Bo with the Town Clerk's office. (Crazy! Here I am on a journey to raise a service dog and I had totally missed Dog Ownershp 101. Thankfully, Syl held my hand along the way and got me up to speed.)

Bo's time at Gil and Syl's house has provided exposures to many new people and provided countless socialization opportunities. Delivery men, repair men, family members and friends -- all giving Bo the opportunity to practice greeting people with manners and learning strangers can be nice people. Their house has also provided the opportunity for Bo to perform the work we've been training him to do -- alert on low and high blood sugar. This is because one of Syl's friends who visits her daily, lives with Type 1 Diabetes. Her name is Ellen. Bo was not trained to alert on her, it's just something he began doing on his own. Ellen has graciously accepted Bo's invitation to work for her.  Each time he alerts, she checks her blood sugar and follows our process for rewarding and reinforcing his alerts. These positive and reinforcing experiences combined with the huge amount of love Bo receives from Gil and Syl and all their friends and family has helped us raise a happy, healthy, smart, sweet dog. 

So, you're thinking WOW, right? I know! We are incredibly fortunate and blessed to live next door to the most wonderful two people a family could ever ask for. We are also incredibly grateful for the wonderful gift and opportunity to share one dog between two families. Syl once described the circumstances of our mutual situation something like this: 'You needed someone to take care of your pup, while we needed a pup to take care of.' I never could have imagined such a perfect arrangement and I'm grateful for it every single day. Our pup lives a great life at his two homes and with his two families, and we wouldn't have it any other way. :)

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Lessons Learned

I've been writing this post in my head for awhile. It's the lessons learned -- those things I would do differently had I the benefit of 20/20 hindsight when we started this journey.

1. Consider Adopting and Training a Released Service Dog in Training

I purchased Bo from a reputable breeder and began training him when we brought him home. If I had it to do over, I would consider adopting a dog that was released from a credible service dog organization like Guiding Eyes for the Blind (GEB). Through my journey, I have become friends with GEB puppy raisers. I've learned a lot about the GEB program and how their dogs are bred, raised, trained, IFT tested and when they don't pass test requirements -- released for adoption. It's a rigorous program and only a small percentage of the dogs that start with the program have the temperament and drive to become guide dogs. The others are released having logged hours of socialization, public access and basic obedience training. All of their training is performed under the guidance of puppy raisers who are required to follow GEB protocols and attend monthly group classes, led by professional GEB trainers. A dog can be released from the GEB program for something as benign as being afraid of heights. In short, adopting a released dog is a cost-effective and time-effective option for the individual seeking to train his/her own DAD --- an option I wished I would have appreciated when I began researching DADs.

2. Let People Pet Your Puppy Even if He is Wearing His Service Vest

I started taking Bo out in his service vest around the time he was 12 weeks old. People would come up to us all the time and ask to pet him and say hello. I would always politely tell them he was a service dog in training and that he couldn't be pet. Well, if I had it over to do I would let as many people big, small, young, old -- you name it --- greet and touch him. Why? Because by not allowing this he got used to people respecting his space. I learned there are many people who don't think twice about touching your dog without your permission. I can't intercept every one of these people who often have good intentions. For example, once I was walking Bo past a group of people on a crowded sidewalk and a man put his hand out to touch Bo as we passed. The benefit of this early exposure to people coming up to him and touching or talking to him (in his vest) far outweighs the benefit of associating the service vest to work when your dog is a young puppy. (Note: When Bo wasn't in his vest as a puppy we always allowed and encouraged greetings from strangers.)

3. Teach 'Close' When Your Puppy is Still Small

Sit, down and stay were the first commands I taught Bo. If I could do it again, I would have taught the 'close' command too. This command teachers your dog to get close to your body. It looks like you sitting with your legs apart and the dog nestled between your legs. If you are standing it looks like the dog sitting between your legs and touching your body. The command is helpful when you need your dog to remain close to your body for his own safety. For example, in a check-out line with shopping carriages or on a bus or subway. Training this command involves luring the dog into an outward facing sit between your legs. It's much easier to get the dog in the necessary position when he is small. I started training Bo on this command when he was older and bigger -- it took a lot of training and practice before he was able to perform it correctly.

4. Choose Your Alert Signal Carefully

I trained Bo to alert with a paw swipe. If I could do it over, I would not use the paw swipe. The paw swipe can be a violent gesture -- especially to a bare leg, arm or to your head. It can result in scratches, bruising and redness. Not ideal for anyone but especially not for a child. Instead of the paw swipe, I would train the nose bump as a low signal. It provides a physical touch that can awake you during sleep but is gentle on skin.

5. Set Your Low Threshold Tight

I originally trained Bo to alert on a blood sugar of 100 or lower. I ended up re-training him to alert on a low of 85 or lower. If I could do it over, I would have trained him to alert on a low of 85 right from the get go. Why? Because we are validating a DAD's alert with a glucometer -- technology that is allowed +/-20 point margin of error. A meter reading of 85 could be as high as 105 and as low as 65 -- 85 is the sweet spot in my opinion.

What lessons have you learned on your journey to raise and train a DAD?

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Leaving Food to Alert

Bo works for all his food. He either works for it through food puzzles and Kongs or through training and alerting. He never gets his food served to him in a bowl. We began feeding Bo like this around the time he was 11 weeks old, so it's all he knows. Thanks to training from Helen, Bo does not resource guard. In fact, when we go near him when he is eating he drops/leaves the Kong and looks at us. He knows when we approach him while he is eating or chewing a bone, yummy food drops from the sky. Not always but a lot of the time.

We do scent training with Bo when he is eating, so he can practice leaving his peanut butter and kibble filled Kong to alert. When I started this training, Bo was younger and he didn't consistently leave his food to alert. As an older dog, he is demonstrating consistency in alerting on a scent sample when he is in the middle of eating,

Today, while he was in his crate eating, I put a low scent sample on my body. It was only a matter of seconds before he smelled the low and came over to let me know. I treated him wildly for his alert. When I gave him the 'all set' command, after treating him, he fetched his Kong and finished eating it in the hallway.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Video: Bo Loading and Unloading a Vehicle

'Load up' is the command we use when we want Bo to get into a vehicle. We use this command consistently and we always have him load up in the same way to practice the behavior. In this video, you see him prepare to load up when he gets the command but it takes me pointing to the space before he jumps into the trunk of the car. There was once a time when he wouldn't load up unless I got into the vehicle first and lured him in with a treat. When I presented this challenge to Helen, over a year ago, she taught me to use a running start to get him to load up on his own. This technique was key to getting him to load in the vehicle on his own.

When we started looking at the test items on the Public Access Certification Test (PACT) we started practicing unloading from a vehicle in a consistent manner. The PACT has a test related to how a dog exits a vehicle. When Bo unloads from a vehicle he sits and stays while I turn and close the vehicle door. Once the door is closed I give him the 'okay' command to continue on our way.