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

Sunday, August 30, 2015

A Major Milestone Met

Bo passed his public access certification test with me last Friday. I took the test with him at a local Walmart Supercenter.  A friend joined me to take video and help out with the test items. Helen administered the test and brought her Collie Paddington to help with a test item requiring another dog.

When I originally scheduled the test date with Helen, we talked about whether Austin or I would test with Bo. Austin wanted to take the test and felt he would be more relaxed than I would. I felt that I would be a distraction to Bo if I was at the test but not handling him. Helen told us it didn't matter to her but cautioned us that if he were to fail, she was required to document it.

Austin and I originally decided he would test with Bo but when I had to reschedule the original test date to the following week, I realized Austin would be in school. After explaining the situation to Austin, he agreed that I should go ahead and take the test with Bo rather than wait for a date that would work with his school schedule.

Unloading from vehicle in a busy parking lot.
I was nervous the morning of the test. I tried to distract myself by keeping busy. I took Bo for an off leash walk and then I did some training with him before walking him on leash.  I also played with him outdoors. He rested on the 40 minute ride to meet Helen. Once the test started my nerves calmed and I felt confident in Bo's ability to work in public.

Bo worked with the distraction of another dog in the store.
He unloaded and walked through the parking lot. He waited on command at the entry to the store and then walked with me through the door when I gave him the 'with me' command. He performed sits, downs, and down stays. He remained down while I dropped the leash and walked away from him. He came to me when I called him. He held his down position when I handed the leash over to another person and walked out of his sight where I remained for a short time before coming back to him. He maintained a heel position while I let go of his leash and draped it over his back. He navigated tight spaces between shopping carts. He ignored adults and children. He behaved politely in the cafe where people were eating and food was being prepared.
Bo heeling without me holding his leash.

The test didn't take long and to my surprise it felt anticlimactic once it was finished. In my mind I built the test up to be a Herculean feat. In reality, it was no different from our typical public outings. Bo did the work we've trained him to do and I did the work Helen trained me to do.

With this milestone on our journey met, I'm looking toward the next -- for Bo to take the PACT with Austin at school. There is still more training to do in school, as well as conversations to be had with school representatives before this happens but I'm confident we will get there. For now, I'm enjoying the pride of accomplishment that comes from hard work and grit.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Book Review of Elle and Coach

Elle and Coach by Stefany Shaheen with Mark Dagostino is a heartfelt, authentic, engaging, inspiring, empowering and myth breaking story of life with Type 1 (Autoimmune) Diabetes and a Diabetes Alert Dog. Stefany's gift for writing and storytelling makes for powerful prose that captures your heart and mind.

As the mother of a child with Type 1 Diabetes and the owner of a Diabetic Alert Dog, I was able to relate to the story on a deeply personal level. Throughout the book there were parts where I found myself thinking: 'wow, I feel that way too' or 'I do that also.'

The chapters flow into each other making for an easy and quick read, while the imagery and detailed descriptions bring the story to life -- allowing you to experience a range of emotions including happiness, sadness, heartbreak, disappointment and even mama bear anger.

In telling her story, Stefany tells the story of thousands of Type 1 families across the nation. Reading it will touch your heart and open your mind. I promise you will be talking about it and sharing it with family, friends and co-workers.

Video: Training at School

We brought Bo to our meeting with the school nurse the other day and took the opportunity to do training in the empty corridors. We experienced a few bumps but overall the boy and pup did well. Austin walked Bo up and down the corridors and up and down the stairs. He stopped to talk with a former teacher and he pretended to get things from a locker. Our plan is to gradually increase the intensity of distractions and duration of exposures in the school environment. This day only teachers and administrative staff were in the building. The distractions were what I consider low: new smells, new but quiet spaces, low traffic and calm interactions with people.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Reward Range Thresholds

When it comes to Bo's nosework, I expect alerts within his low and high reward range thresholds. For a high it's 170 to 220 and for a low it's 70 to 89.* An alert that allows us to treat Austin's blood sugar before it gets dangerously high or low, is one that meets my standard of a successful alert.

Dangerous highs may result in ketones and may put Austin at risk for long term complications associated with high blood sugar. Dangerous lows may put Austin at risk for short term conditions such as seizures, coma, or in the worse possible case, death. In general, if Bo alerts on a blood sugar above 220 or below 70 I consider the alerts helpful but not successful. 

There are two scenarios when I make an exception to this standard. They are: 
  1. When Bo alerts on a low below 70 or a high above 220 upon Austin arriving home after being separated from Bo. For example, when Austin sleeps at a friend's house and Bo stays home. Bo has alerted outside his reward thresholds  (higher than 220 or lower than 70) upon Austin arriving home. I consider this a successful alert because Bo was not with Austin to smell his blood sugar when it was in the 170-220 range.
  2. When Bo is re-alerting on a low that's dropping or a high that's rising. He may give his first alert within his reward thresholds but continue to alert well beyond the 220 or below the 70 until Austin's blood sugar is in non-reward range (above 90 and below 169.) I consider this acceptable because these alerts serve to let us know there is either an issue with treating the low and it's still dropping below 70 or still rising above 220. 
Bo is not perfect. He is a living, breathing animal and his ability to work can be influenced by many factors including but not limited to: 
  • How full or empty his stomach is;
  • How energetic or fatigued he is physically or mentally;
  • The number and strength of distractions that are present in his work environment.
Alerts outside of his reward thresholds don't happen frequently but they do occur and when they do, they provide me the opportunity to evaluate the influences at play and modify his scent training to address them.

I'm interested in hearing from you. What are your experiences with regards to out of reward range threshold alerts? What are your expectations around your DAD's alerts? What exceptions, if any, do you have to your expectations? What other thoughts do you have on the topic of alert reward ranges and thresholds?

* Reward thresholds vary among DAD teams.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Today I Turned Three

Today I turned three.

I slept late with my boy.
I took a morning walk with my friends.
I retrieved my Papa's hat.

I played 100 things to do with a box.

I held my paw on the riser to get a treat.

I practiced sits, downs and stands on the step.

I practiced 'touch' with the easy button.

I played fetch.

I alerted to my boy's blood sugar and got rewarded.

I worked at Lowes and met these statue dogs.

I hung out on the front lawn with my Mama.

I ate an ice cube filled with kibble and carrots.

I took pictures with my boy and Papa.

I got hugs and love from my boy.

I posed for pictures.

I snuggled with my boy.

I got a birthday treat and I really liked it.

I celebrated with my family and Gil and Syl.

I turned three today.

Our three year old pup. August 23, 2015.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

What People Want to Know

Over the course of our journey, I've been asked a lot of questions about having a Diabetes Alert Dog. These are the top five questions people tend to ask and my answers.

Q: How does Bo know Austin's blood sugar is high or low?

Most people don't realize DADs alert on the smell of blood sugar similar to how a bomb detection dog alerts on the smell of explosives. I've found many people think DADs sense a drop or rise in blood sugar as opposed to smell it. Once I describe how Bo knows in terms of how a bomb or drug detection dog works, people get it. 

Q: How does Bo alert to you? 

Once people understand Bo is trained to alert on the smell of low and high blood sugar, they often follow-up with this question. In my experience, their first thought is that Bo alerts us by barking. He does not; he alerts with a paw swipe for a high and a paw swipe followed by a bow for a low. He may bark out of frustration if he was alerting and we ignored him but we don't ignore his alerts. We always acknowledge them verbally by saying 'let's check' and then, once we validate an alert we reinforce it by asking him to 'show us' and reward him with food and or play. 

Q: Does Bo ever get to play and have fun?
I'd wager to bet Bo has more play time and fun each day than most pet dogs. Training time is fun time for Bo and we do it every day -- multiple times a day. When he sees me take out a clicker, or put my training pack around my waste, he gets visibly excited.  In addition to training every day, we play with Bo every day. His favorite game is 'getcha' where he gets a toy and runs laps around our living and dining rooms, while we pretend we are going to get him. He also loves playing football fetch at Gil and Syl's house. He has several dog friends that he enjoys playing with during off leash trail walks too. 

Q: Do you still  check Austin at night?
Yes. We check Austin on a schedule regardless of Bo's alerts. His alerts help us catch highs and lows that occur between our scheduled checks but they do not replace them. Many nights we check Austin two to three times due to Bo alerting. The other night Bo alerted to a high of 180 at 12:30 am and re-alerted at 3 am to a 99 that was out of his reward threshold but too low for night time. I decreased Austin's basal rate by .10 units and told Bo he was a good boy. At 6 am Bo alerted again; Austin was 74. 

Q: Did you train Bo yourself?
Yes, with the help of professional trainers. I'm not a professional trainer. Bo is the first dog I have ever owned. Prior to having Bo I was not a 'dog person' which makes our story even more fascinating to many people -- but mostly my close family and friends who know me well. I attribute my success training Bo to four factors: 
1. Helen Nicholls, CDPT-KSA, CDBC, OSCT
As our primary trainer, she has been by my side teaching us, supporting us and advising us since before we brought Bo home. Without her skill, expertise, knowledge and friendship we would not be where we are today in our journey. 
2. Our Neighbors Syl and Gil 
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. 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.
3. My Personal Commitment 
It's been a huge investment in time, energy, and resources to get to where we are today. My unwavering commitment to the process has helped get us  here.
4. My Ability to Take Direction 
I started out on this journey knowing nothing about obedience, public access or scent training. I've learned everything I know today on this three year journey. If it weren't for my ability to listen to and take directions, I never would have succeeded. 

Q: If you had it to do again, would you train another DAD? 
I would do it all over again most definitely. Raising and training Bo has been one of the most challenging, fulfilling and gratifying experiences of my life. 

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Boy and Pup Working in Public

Austin checking after Bo alerted low.
Austin and Bo are making even more progress in their work together. During a recent shopping trip boy and pup worked side-by-side with only a few bumps over the course of the two hour outing. The first being Bo lagging behind Austin at the first store in an effort to check-in with me as I followed behind them. I recognized I was distracting him, so I trailed off in another direction and caught up with them a few minutes later. While shopping at the outlets, they encountered three dogs at once. Two of the dogs were with one handler and the third dog was with another. All three dogs were interested in Bo. Typically, Bo doesn't have a problem ignoring another dog but these three (at the same time) got his attention and he was distracted. He lost his focus on Austin for the short time it took all them to pass one another.
Bo alerted Austin to a low while at Nike. 
Bo did alert to three lows while we were shopping. He caught a 61, 83 and 87. He alerted to Austin first and me second on the 61 and 87. He alerted with a paw swipe and bow and we checked immediately to validate his alert. Once validated, I prompted him to show me his signal for a low and then I gave him his food reward. Following his reward, we gave him the 'all set' command and sat while Austin treated his blood sugar.

At Bob's Store Austin and his friend were checking out an end cap with different sport balls. Bo was at Austin's side when Austin decided to toss a pink bouncy ball to his friend. His friend caught the ball but then bounced it back to Austin. The ball bounced right in front of Bo and he was rock solid. (I reminded Austin he should not be playing ball in the store.)

Checking out balls at Bob's Store.
Taking a nap while shopping at Bob's Store.
Waiting for their turn to check out.
Two hours of school shopping.