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

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.