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

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Generalizing the Alert Behavior

Bo waiting for me after an alert.
One of the many key concepts in scent training involves teaching your dog when you ask him to perform a behavior it means the same thing regardless of the environment or scenario. This is called generalization; teaching a dog to generalize a behavior involves training the behavior in different locations and under different distractions. It also involves changing up the position of your body when you ask for the behavior. Once a dog is able to generalize a behavior, he is able to give the behavior on cue despite the scenario. 

During a recent extended stay at a vacation home, Bo demonstrated his ability to generalize his night time alert behavior. The vacation home was larger than our home and the floor plan was much different. I wondered if Bo would alert at night given the new space. Would he find his way from the room where he slept with Austin to the room where I slept. Would he come to the side of the bed to wake me? Would he lead me back to Austin? 

The first night he demonstrated his ability to generalize night alerting. Despite being in new surroundings, he alerted to a low of 69. Just like he does at home, he left Austin's bed and came to the side of the bed where I slept to wake me. When I stood up, he bowed at my feet and then he led me to Austin. 

Bo with reward toy after a game of getcha.
What really impressed me was his ability to also generalize his reward behaviors. Just like at home, he went to the refrigerator to get his food reward, then he followed me to the bin where his reward toy was and waited for me to initiate a game of 'getcha.' After a few laps of me pretending to get him, I cued him to return to the kitchen with the toy. He dropped the toy and waited for his last treat before returning to bed with Austin.  

Night after night in this new space he worked just like he works at home. He alerted to lows in the 80s and highs ranging from 173 to 220. His alerts were not limited to at night, he alerted during the day catching post skiing lows in the 70s and 80s, as well as highs related to temp basal decreases that were a bit too aggressive. 

Settled 'under' after being rewarded for a high alert.

At the ski lodge, he broke place from under the table to alert but Austin's blood sugar was 157, so we told him we would 'watch.' Within 12 minutes he re-alerted by paw swiping my leg from under the table; this time Austin's blood sugar was 187 and in Bo's high reward range. After being treated for his alert, he settled back under the table where he remained until we left. 

Being away on vacation has provided Bo the opportunity to demonstrate his ability to generalize his alert behavior. Seeing him work successfully in new environments and under different distractions fills my heart with pride and gratitude. We've come so far on our journey. 

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Third Shift

Sleepy Bo right after a night alert.
We are fortunate; Bo is an excellent night alerter. I believe he does some of his best work for us while we are sleeping. He didn't start out as a night alerter. It took hard work that involved training in the middle of the night, as well as a lot of trial and error including tweaking his sleep schedule and space.

Some of the most common questions people ask about Bo pertain to his night alerting. Recently when asked one of these questions, I decided the topic was worthy of a blog post.  What follows is what people want to know about Bo working the third shift.

1.  How did you train Bo to alert during the night?
I used live scent when I began training Bo on night alerts. Every time I checked Austin in the middle of the night, I woke Bo and included him in the check. If Austin's blood sugar was in Bo's low or high reward range, I would cue Bo for his trained alert chain and then give him a high value food. As his training progressed, I began using scent samples but only when Austin was not in the house. In the middle of the night, with Bo asleep and Austin away, I presented a low scent sample near him while he slept. When he awoke I would reward him with a jackpot of high value food and his favorite game or toy. The idea was to condition him to associate waking up to a low scent with things that he really, REALLY liked.

2. Does Bo sleep at night?

He does sleep but we put systems in place so he is able to sleep lightly. (See answer to Q5)
Bo goes back to bed with Austin after a night alert

3. Where does Bo sleep at night?

Bo sleeps in bed with Austin. When Bo was a puppy he slept in his crate beside Austin's bed. Once he was house broken he began sleeping in bed with Austin. For nearly two years, we put a baby gate at Austin's bedroom door to prevent Bo from leaving Austin's room at night and coming into our room to sleep.

4. How does Bo wake you to alert at night?

When Bo was gated in Austin's room, he would jump off Austin's bed and whine at the baby gate to alert us. We sleep lightly and our bedroom is within ten feet of Austin's room, so we never had a problem hearing him at the gate.

As Bo matured, we were able to remove the gate. Now he jumps off Austin's bed and comes to our room to alert at night. He will stand at the side of my bed and whine. I am a light sleeper, so I usually hear him when he jumps off Austin's bed. Once I get out of bed, Bo leads me to Austin's room. He waits at the side of Austin's bed as I check Austin. If I respond quickly to his whines, he typically will not paw swipe. 
A baby gate helped in Bo's night training.

5. Did Bo always alert at night?

He wasn't always a reliable and consistent night alerter. It took training, tweaking and time to get to where we are today. I found success in allowing him to sleep for a few hours in the early evening before he gets in bed with Austin. So, from 8 - 9:30 pm he hops in bed with me and sleeps. At 9:30 pm he gets up and goes in bed with Austin where he stays until the morning. Bo will not work at night if he sleeps in my bed all night; he simply sleeps too soundly burrowed under the blankets between two warm bodies.

6. Do you check Austin's blood sugar in the middle of the night if Bo doesn't alert? 

Yes, we always check Austin's blood sugar at night regardless if Bo alerts. Bo's alerts help us between our scheduled night time checks. 

7. Do you feel more comfortable at night knowing Bo will alert?

Night time is scary. I am always concerned about Austin's safety when he is asleep at night and having Bo doesn't change that. 

Your turn. What questions do you have about Bo's night alerts? 

Video: Training Bo to Close Doors

I am training Bo to close doors on command. It's a behavior he is learning quickly. I started training him using a sticky note taped to a door and giving him the 'touch' command. I began target training with him when he was a young puppy, so he knew what I wanted when I pointed to the sticky and gave the command 'touch.'

After just a few times in the initial session, I dropped using the verbal cue 'touch' and just pointed to the sticky on the door. Every time he used his nose to push the door closed, I rewarded him. If he pushed it hard enough and the door closed tight, I reinforced him with a jackpot of treats, plus verbal praise.

Today, I added the verbal cue 'close,' which will be the command I use to cue this behavior. Once he is consistently responding to the verbal command, I'll remove the sticky note and practice with just the command. I've been training on interior doors, exterior doors, kitchen cabinet doors and the refrigerator door. The goal behind this training is for Bo to use his nose to push a door closed on command. This training is only teaching him to close a door by pushing it. When I train him to close a door with a pull method, I'll use a tug toy tied to the door.