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

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Christmas Vacation

As I sit cross legged on the bed typing these words, he lies at my knees snoring gently. Moments ago he alerted to my dad one floor above me before leading my dad downstairs to me, where he alerted to me. Austin was playing video games behind a closed door in a room on the opposite side of the vacation home where we are staying. A check of Austin’s blood sugar confirmed his high alert. Once I treated him for his alert, he followed me back to my room downstairs where he now lies sleeping. I love my working pup.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

What It's Like Working Bo at School

Bo and Austin during free time.
Guest post from Austin: 
Bo as many of you know has been attending school with me for a bit over a month now and let me say it has been one of the best months in my life. Bo is up there with some of the best things to come into my life. He works everyday all day, he get few breaks and still alerts and performs exceptionally. As I grow older and older the feeling I get when high or low fade and I find it increasingly harder to tell the difference between normal and low. However the scent signature will not change and that’s where Bo comes in he has caught thousands of high and low blood sugars through his life and it does not stop in school. Even with the constant flow of questions like “how old is he” or “what does he do”, “You’re not blind” and the most annoying “can I pet him” Bo stays calm and works through it. Bo works 6 hours through a school day and most of that is very boring to him, sitting or lying at my feet scenting for the slightest smell of a low or high. Bo is the best he is everything I could imagine and more. It makes me and my mother so proud to see him succeed in school.

Bo under desk at school

Bo napping after being picked-up from school.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Subject: Physical Science, Austin and Bo

When I drop Austin and Bo off at school in the morning, I always stay to watch them make their way from the sidewalk to the school entrance. As they disappear behind the glass doors, I wish I could see what they look like navigating the corridors and classrooms. This weekend I received an email from Austin’s science teacher that was the next best thing to being able to see boy and pup working on their own. Her words filled my eyes with tears of happiness and my heart with pride for the team my boy and his dog have become.

Subject: Physical Science, Austin and Bo

Hi Jennifer

Just a quick note to let you know how well things are going in Physical Science class with Bo.

We are in a very noisy part of the curriculum, with the students (a full class of 24) setting up cars and ramps, then running these noisy cars down the ramps throughout the class to collect data. Throughout it all, (3 class periods so far) Bo has been composed and settled. Austin does an amazing job of keeping an eye on him and keeping up with all the work expected at the same time.

I have been very impressed with both of them and thought you should know what a great job they are doing in class together.

Have a great weekend.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Bo's Four Year Homecoming Anniversary

October 13, 2013
Four years ago yesterday, we brought Bo home and began the journey that led us to where we are today. We welcomed our sweet pup into our hearts with hopes and dreams that were big but grounded in reality. We knew there were no guarantees the puppy we chose would have the drive or temperament to be a diabetic alert dog (DAD); what we did know is we were committed to doing everything we could to give him the best possible chance for success.

Fast forward to today and boy and pup are navigating high school side-by-side everyday. They are working together with ease. Bo is alerting Austin at school and Austin is responding to his alerts by checking his blood sugar and rewarding Bo. It wasn’t until boy and pup began working independently together at the start of this school year that I finally felt like I could say ‘I did it’ — I reached my ultimate goal of training a DAD for Austin.

The path we took to get a DAD isn’t a path that’s suited for every T1D family and certainly not a path for the faint of heart. I believe it worked for us because we committed our time, energy and resources to giving Bo the best possible chance for success. Additionally, we were fortunate to have an extraordinary trainer in Helen Nicholls St. Pierre plus an expansive support network of family, friends and other DAD teams from across the country.

We were lucky; Bo turned out to have the drive to do the work we raised and trained him to do. Not all dogs, despite their breeding and training, are cut-out to be service dogs —  a fact I think about every time I consider training another DAD for Austin to take to college. Similarly, not all families are suited to train a service dog. I’m thankful for our experience and grateful for the incredible journey we began four years ago when we brought Bo home.

Friday, September 2, 2016

The Inconvenience Factor

The activity of Austin's three hour football practice caught up with his blood sugar this evening and Bo was on the job to let us know. I got his first alert as I was putting away laundry in Austin's room. I felt Bo's paw swipe but Austin saw it and told me he had to check before I said anything. The meter read 86. I rewarded Bo while Austin ate a snack. Seventeen minutes later Bo re-alerted me. Austin re-checked; he was still 86.

If you're fortunate enough to have a DAD that consistently and reliably alerts, you can expect being alerted and re-alerted. Sometimes it's not convenient to stop what you're doing to validate a re-alert and reward it with food and or a game. (i.e., It's the middle of the night and you want to go back to sleep. You're leaving for work and you're already late.)  But, it's always important to validate the alert in a timely manner and reward or watch it based on the number.  It's been my experience that following a consistent process for responding to alerts is key to maintaining Bo's work ethic and ultimately our team's success. 

As Austin prepares to take Bo to school full-time this month, I've talked with him a lot about the importance of responding to Bo's alerts immediately. As a 14-year-old boy, he doesn't always want to stop his activity to check in response to an alert. (Also, he sometimes thinks he knows better than Bo despite Bo proving him wrong on several occasions.) When I'm with him, I will check for him as he continues what he's doing. At school the responsibility will fall on him. I know he can do it.  I expect he and Bo will become a stronger team as they work more on their own and less with me.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Training, Exercise and Play Before Sunday Mass

Before Austin and I left for church with Bo Sunday morning, I took Bo to our local community schoolyard for training, exercise and play. On the short walk from our house to the school, we practiced loose leash walking, as well as stopping and or sitting based on my body cues. I also worked Bo on pivoting.

Once we got to the empty school parking lot, I let go of the leash and worked on heel work using only voice control. Once we reached the schoolyard, I unhitched his leash, gave him his free command and threw his frisbee. The schoolyard's large open field is a safe space for him to get exercise and work off leash.

I love the early morning time I spend with Bo outside. I get to reinforce trained behaviors, as well as have fun with him. In a couple of weeks Austin will begin taking Bo to school. Before they leave each morning,  I'll train, exercise and play with Bo like I did this morning. It's not only fun for him but it's a way for him to get his 'beans out' as Helen says.

When we got to church, Bo settled at our feet in the pew. In the past, when Austin has taken Bo to mass, Austin’s repeated standing and sitting throughout the mass confused Bo. He is trained to follow our body movement, so each time Austin stood, Bo responded by standing. On Sunday, we cued him to stay before we were about to stand. He quickly figured out he could stay settled even though we were moving up and down.

Bo did break his place mid mass. Austin's first reaction was to tell him to go down. I reminded Austin that Bo may be alerting and to wait and watch. After a few seconds and a yawn, Bo paw swiped my leg. Austin checked and confirmed his high alert. 

When we went up to receive communion, Bo ended up backing his way out of the pew rather than turning around and walking straight out of it like in this picture. Turning in small confined spaces is now on our list to train and practice. Backing out wasn’t a big deal but it exposed a hole in our training. So, we will work to fill it.

During mass my thoughts drifted from the liturgy to the boy and pup sitting next to me. As I watched them in the space, I couldn’t help but think about how far they've come. There was once a time in church when Bo barked at our priest when Austin was getting communion. No barking this Sunday  just a calm, settled and focused pup doing the job we’ve worked so hard to train him how to do. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Today I Turned Four

Today I turned four.

I went for a walk and sniffed.

I ate birthday cookies.

I celebrated with my family and Gil & Syl.

I opened a present from Gil & Syl.

I played with my boy outside.

I worked for my boy. Here I am telling him he is low.

I napped.

I played with my favorite toy.

Our four-year-old pup. August 23, 2016.

Monday, July 11, 2016

When Your Service Dog Pukes in Public

I’ve run through a lot of scenarios of what could go wrong while working Bo in public but puking is not one of them. So when I got Austin’s text today that read, “He puked,” all I could think to ask was if he handled it okay.  I didn't get a reply from Austin but I talked to him after class.  He told me there was a lot of puke and the teacher called the janitor to clean the mess. (How fortunate for him. He gags at picking up Bo's poop.) According to Austin, his classmates didn't hear or see Bo get sick. Austin said Bo didn't break place or make noise. And, despite an upset stomach Bo did his job and alerted Austin to a high of 170 during class. 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Helen Nicholls, CPDT-KSA, CDBC, OSCT

My dear friend and dog trainer Helen Nicholls
If you know Helen Nicholls, our friend and dog trainer, you know why I love her. If you don't, I'll tell you. But before I do, let me share the story of our beginning  it's one that goes back to 2012 before Bo was even born. We started with a voice mail  a long-winded, rambling voice message from yours truly. I don't remember verbatim the loquacious monologue I left on Helen's voice mail but it went something like this:

Hi Helen! 
My name is Jenn Dearborn. I got your name from a co-worker who highly recommended you. I'm calling because I would like to train a puppy to be a Diabetic Alert Dog for my 10-year-old son. He lives with Type 1 Diabetes— my son, not the puppy. I've never owned a dog before and I'm looking to work with a professional dog trainer who can help me with basic obedience and public access. I was wondering if you would be interested in working with me. Please give me a call. I look forward to talking to you. Thanks!

While some professional dog trainers, upon receiving such a voice mail, would hit delete before getting to the end of my message, Helen not only listened to all of it but she also called me back.

In recounting with Helen our beginning, I've shared how glad I am that she took a chance on me — the mother who had no dog training experience, never owned a dog, wasn't even a 'dog person,' yet wanted to raise and train a Diabetic Alert Dog for her child. She threw the proverbial dice when she agreed to take me on as a client. The odds for success weren't in my favor. (Let's just be honest.) Thankfully, what I lacked in experience and knowledge, I made up for in sheer grit. And so, with the throwing of those dice our journey together began. 

It didn't take me long to realize I'd found someone special in Helen. She was much more than a knowledgeable and gifted dog trainer, she was a truly good person with a loving heart and a passion for helping humans and their dogs build relationships rooted in trust and respect.

I met with Helen twice a month for more than two years. Sometimes we met more often. Only for a brief period, when she was on medical leave, did we meet less. Despite being on leave, she made herself accessible to me. Going so far as to make me promise I'd call her if I needed help. 

Our training sessions began and ended with Helen's arms outstretched to deliver her signature hug. (If you know Helen, you know the hug I'm talking about.) I'm not a "hugger," but I always welcomed her warm embraces.  In our sessions she taught me about positive reinforcement training methods, which she uses with dogs as well as their humans. Just as chicken or cheese fed Bo's willingness to work, hearing "Good job Jenn" or "Nice work" from Helen fueled my motivation. Helen educated me on puppy behavior and adolescent dog development. She instructed me on how to teach behaviors and use verbal and non-verbal commands. She even schooled me in dog gear and toys.

I'm not sure when it happened but at some point between her teaching and my learning, Helen my dog trainer became Helen my friend — the friend I know and love today. 

Why I Love Helen
She is a straight shooter. She tells it like it is. Sometimes it's something you want to hear, sometimes it's not, but every time it's delivered in the kind of matter-of-fact, non-judgmental manner that gives you pause to think. 

She's real and affable. There is no pretense when it comes to her. Her words, actions and heart are genuine. Being in her presence is comfortable and fun.

She is wise beyond her years carrying with her the insight and perspective of an old soul. On more then one occasion, I've said her job title should read dog trainer/human therapist. 

She has the best sense of humor with a quick wit that makes you laugh out loud and your cheeks hurt. 

She is a compassionate and loving mother who is devoted to her precious little girl. Her love for her child is palpable through her actions and words. Everything she does is with her daughter's best interest in mind.

She is resilient in the face of adversity  a role model to others on how to face life's challenges with grace and dignity. 

She is incredibly smart and a life long learner. Her interests and knowledge traverse topics of science, history and literature. 

Last but definitely not least, she is loyal. She will stand up and protect the integrity of those she cares about. (I'm talking mamma bear loyal.) If you're her friend, you can trust she's got your back.

Helen is all these things and so much more. She truly  is an amazing and inspiring person and she has had a profound impact on me and Austin. I feel fortunate our paths in life crossed, as I can't imagine being on this journey without her by my side.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Video: Scent Training with a Low Blood Sugar Sample

While Austin was at basketball practice tonight I did scent training with Bo. Without him knowing, I hid a low scent sample in my room and waited for him to smell it. Once he found the low, I took him out of the room to reward him and then went back to the room to hide the sample again. He knows the game, so when I let him back in the room he began sniffing for the low. I took video of him sniffing out the low. In each video you see him give his alert behavior, a bow, when he finds the scent. In the first video, it's hidden on the hope chest. In the second video, it's hidden behind the bed pillows. In the third video, it's hidden in the bottom drawer of the dresser. 

Monday, May 16, 2016

Setting Boy and Pup Up for Success

Setting Austin and Bo up for success has been my first priority in all the training I've done with them. This is no more evident than in the hundreds of hours I've spent over the course of our journey preparing them for the day they would attend school together. We've trained for years in schools and places that mimic school environments  spaces like gymnasiums, libraries, cafeterias and even our church's education classrooms. We've created mock classrooms and simulated busy locker corridors to prepare boy and pup for the cachophany of distractions school presents. We've practiced walking in sync up and down stairwells, resisting the temptation of dozens of tennis balls on the feet of classroom chairs, and placing under desks and tablesWe've had short training sessions at the end of the day in school and on the busy school campus. Most recently, Austin has worked Bo in school at the end of the day while I've waited outside. 

Taking a service dog to school is a big responsibility for a child; working with a child at school is challenging for a service dog. The team's success is dependent on one thing that cannot be taught or trained — the maturity that comes from experiences, mistakes and understanding. And so, as I've waited for them to mature I've fielded questions from friends, strangers, family and Austin about when the two would attend school together. Often times fielding the questions with the tenacity of a defendant under cross examination.  

"When is Bo going to school?" friends asked. 

"Do they go to school together?" strangers wanted to know. 

"Isn't Bo old enough to work with Austin in school?" family members probed.

And of course there were the seemingly endless questions from Austin as to when he could take Bo to school, without me. 

Despite the questions, that sometimes carried an undertone of disappointment, I maintained my commitment to giving boy and pup the best chance for success no matter how long it took for 'the one day' to arrive when they were capable of handling the responsibility and challenge of working in school.

I'm so happy I was patient because the perfect opportunity has presented itself for boy and pup to trial working together at high school this summer. Austin is taking a writing class that meets four days a week through the month of July. Because it's summer session the classes are only half days and the school is not at full capacity. They'll have the chance to find their rhythm in a shorter day and under less crowded conditions than what they'd encounter if school was in full session. While I don't have a crystal ball, I'm cautiously optimistic that they are capable of success under these modified conditions. 

Last week, I met with representatives from Austin's school to revise his 504 Plan to include Bo this summer. We are fortunate to live within a school district that is supportive of our family's use of a service dog to help manage Austin's Type 1 Diabetes. Together, Austin's guidance counselors and I identified the accommodations that would be most helpful to ensure Austin and Bo's safety at school. I left the meeting filled with hope for what lies ahead on what has been one of the most wonderful journeys I've ever taken.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

A Serendipitous Encounter

Yesterday, while at U Mass Boston for a basketball tournament, we met a woman who works for Dr. David Scadden, the Harvard Stem Cell Research Institute researcher who along with Dr. Douglas Melton leads the stem cell research to find a cure for Type 1 Diabetes. She described herself as Dr. Scadden's 'work wife' but she didn't go into details about her specific role. 

She had approached us with eyes for Bo and when I answered her question of what Bo's job was, she shared her work relationship to Drs. Scadden and Melton. 

It was encouraging hearing her talk so emphatically about stem cells curing Type 1 Diabetes in the future -- even in Austin's future. I'm so thankful for the bright minds and hard work of all the people who are making finding a cure for Type 1 the focus of their life work. And, for all those who fund finding a cure.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Basketball Tournament Weekend

Scenes from a weekend away at a basketball tournament. 

Bo on place at restaurant.

Waiting to enter basketball courts.

Between games.

Boy and pup hanging together.

Between games at Cabela's.

Bo alerted to a high at Cabela's.

Boy and Pappa checking out fishing poles.

Waiting for the Mama.

Boy and pup working together at Cabela's.

Shopping together.

Picture in front of the taxidermy display.

Go team!

Working Together at School

Bo 'under' during religion class.
I am hopeful this image of Bo working with Austin in a classroom is foreshadowing of what's to come this summer when Austin attends 9th grade confirmation I class in June and a high school writing course in July.

The pup does a great job alerting us on Austin's out of range blood sugars. His low alerts are especially helpful because Austin doesn't feel his low blood sugars and is often asymptomatic. 

Last summer, Austin spent the summer with Bo and we saw a decrease in his A1c. I'm hopeful we will see the same drop this summer as boy and pup spend all day together day in and day out.  I'm also hopeful the one-on-one time will further strengthen their bond. 

Ideally, Austin would have tucked Bo's tail in to
protect it from being stepped on,

Night Alerts

He does some of his best work for us while we are tucked in bed sleeping. Thusday night he woke me with an alert before 2 am. Austin had been 189 before bed but he had also spent hours on the golf course. The activity caught up with him and he went low. Bo caught the 60 before our scheduled check. Anyone who questions the ability of a trained DAD, only needs to spend a few nights with us to understand the ability of a DAD's nose.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Low Alert While Home Alone

Boy and pup
Today, Bo alerted to directly to Austin while the two were home alone. Austin was resting in my bed when Bo came into the room, jumped on the bed and alerted Austin with a paw swipe. Austin asked him if he needed to check and Bo paw swiped him a second time. Austin checked; he was 52. He treated himself with juice and then rewarded Bo with chicken. 

Ideally, Bo would have alerted before Austin got to 52. We use scent samples between 70 and 85 for training. While 52 is lower than I would like, it's better than no alert given the fact Austin doesn't feel his lows.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Bo's First Basketball Tournament

This nose knows.
Last Saturday we were at a basketball tournament with Austin and Bo from 5:30 to 10:30 pm. While Austin sat and played with his teammates on the court, we watched the games from the balcony with Bo. He alerted to a high while Austin was playing.

It was a busy, loud and crowded environment with lots of distractions. Food on the floor was one of the biggest and most difficult distractions for Bo, although he responded promptly to my commands to 'leave.' All the training we've done at basketball games helped prepare him for a tournament atmosphere.

Watching the games from the balcony.

Bo tucked between my legs and the balcony glass.