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

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?

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