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

Monday, May 29, 2017

For the Love of Bo

Prior to my journey I had no dog training experience, never owned a dog, nor was a “dog person.” What I lacked in experience I made up for in sheer grit. I knew it was going to be work. I had no idea how much work it would be. I knew it would be at least two years before I'd know if the puppy I was training had the drive or temperament to be a service dog. I had no idea the amount of tears or triumphs I would experience on the way to finding out. I knew I would love our pup regardless of the outcome; I had no idea just how strong that love would be or how much joy it would bring.

My story is one a mother’s will to defy the odds to help her child live independently with a life threatening disease that requires constant vigilance — a story punctuated by adversity, perseverance and triumph. It's a love story in the truest sense. 

Video: With Me Off Leash

Bo is trained to walk at our left side and to keep our pace. 'With me' is the verbal command for this trained behavior. It's commonly known as 'heel.' When he is working on a leash, his leash should be loose. He should not pull ahead or lag behind but instead stay on his mark at our leg. 

In this video, Bo is walking with me OFF leash. You see he maintains his position at my left side, keeping pace and visually checking in with me. When I stop, he stops and sits without any verbal prompting. We use food reward based training to teach Bo to walk at our side on and off leash. One of the most helpful training tips I got related to training 'with me' was to be sure I was giving Bo his food reward on his mark.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Kid with the Dog

Last Thursday, I attended a meeting at work without my cell phone. The one hour meeting ended up lasting two hours. When I got back to my office, I had missed two calls — one from Austin and one from the school nurse. They were trying to reach me because Austin's blood sugar was 500 and he had small ketones.

In his condition, he couldn't walk home from school as planned, so he needed to be picked up. With me unreachable and his typical ride home out of town, Austin called our neighbors — Syl and Gil. And, as they've done so many times before, they swooped in and saved the day for our family. Syl was there to answer Austin's call and Gil was there to pick him up at school and bring him home. When I finally returned the missed calls, Austin was home and his blood sugar was on a downward trend.

Later that evening as I reflected on the incident, I couldn't help but think how Bo could have prevented the dangerous high and ketones, if he had been at school with Austin. I have no doubt Bo would have alerted in time to treat the rise in blood sugar before it got to an unsafe number. He also would have continued to alert, leading Austin to re-check. Bo wasn't at school because Austin has not wanted to resume taking him to school since he stopped attending with him in December. Austin says he wants to bring Bo back to school but so far he has not.

During a recent appointment with Austin's endocrinologist, Austin shared his feelings about bringing Bo to school expressing the extra work involved with being responsible for a dog at school. Later in an unrelated conversation with me, he made a reference to 'being the kid with the dog' at school. I know taking a dog to school is a big responsibility. I also know having a dog at school draws a lot of unwanted attention. I've chosen to leave the decision of whether or not to take Bo to school up to Austin. When we are going out in public, I always ask him if he wants to bring Bo or leave him home. Lately, he's opted to leave him home. Today, Austin had a medical appointment for an acute illness. Like I always do, I asked him if he wanted to take Bo to the appointment. I expected him to say, no. To my surprise, he said yes.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Service Animal Pamphlet Features Bo

Bo is featured on the front cover of Concord Hospital's Service Animal pamphlet.  I may be bias but I think he visually represents service dogs (SD) well. What do you think?

The hospital produced pamphlet addresses ADA law and outlines what patients and visitors with service dogs can expect during their visit or stay.  The pamphlet will be available in public spaces at the hospital and its medical practices. The contents of it is also available on Concord Hospital's Web site.  I'm hopeful it will serve as a tool to educate people about the ADA law and inform on how healthcare professionals at the Hospital interact with service dog teams.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Service Dog Education and Advocacy

Bo as Service Dog Ambassador
Last week I had the opportunity to talk to a great group of fourth and fifth grade Cub Scouts about service dogs. Austin was asked to give the presentation but declined, so I gave it with Bo. The week prior, I had joined friends who raise Guiding Eyes for the Blind puppies for a similar presentation to a Girls Scout Troop. 

My presentation focused on education and advocacy. I started my talk with a discussion about what makes a service dog different from a pet dog. I then talked about the different types of service dogs and had a nice conversation with the boys about Bo's job as a Diabetic Alert Dog. I was so impressed with the their knowledge and questions. Many boys had heard of diabetes and even knew it was a disease that related to a person's blood sugar. Smart kids! 

Before we left, I invited the boys to hide a scent stick for Bo to find. I took Bo outside the classroom while they hid the scent stick. When I returned with Bo, I gave him the command to 'find low' and the boys enjoyed watching him use his nose to find it. Bo also got to demonstrate some of the commands he knows and take a picture with the den. 

The boys showed excellent service dog etiquette and did not touch, pet or talk to Bo — understanding when a service dog is in public the dog is working and must stay focused on its handler to do its job well.

I look forward to doing more service dog education and advocacy in the future.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Checking On a Schedule

Checking on a schedule means not relying solely on Bo to alert us to a high or low blood sugar. We check on a schedule because while Bo alerts reliably and consistently, we recognize he is a living being and like all living creatures he is not perfect.

Today, Bo didn't alert when Austin was playing basketball. When Austin came out of the locker room, Austin checked-in with Bo. A check-in involves Austin saying hello to Bo, petting him and getting close to his face. I watched boy and pup during the check-in and didn't observe any pre-cursors to an alert.

After Austin finished his check-in, Bo didn't give an alert. Despite Bo's non alert, Austin checked his blood sugar because we always have him check after he engages in physical activity. Austin's blood sugar was 108, a safe number that's not in Bo's reward range threshold. Once again the pup proved his nose knows.

We could easily fall into a pattern of relying on Bo's alerts to tell us when to check Austin but we don't. Bo's alerts help us catch lows and highs between schedule checks; they don't serve to replace those checks. However, it always feels good when we check after a non-alert and the number on the meter validates Bo's nose. We are fortunate; we've got a pup that knows his job and likes working.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Video: 'This Way' Command

We use the verbal command 'this way' to cue a 180 degree direction change.  We mostly use it on loose leash walks. Today, while on an off leash walk with Bo and Lilly, I captured this video of Bo responding to my command 'this way.' If you're able to zoom in on the video, you can actually see him change direction the moment I give the command. 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Is That Service Dog Team Real or Fake?

During our recent air travel with Bo, we encountered a couple at the airport with two service dogs. Upon noticing Bo, one of the dogs began barking and lunging in our direction. The handler held the dog's leash short and tight as we made our way past them and through the check-in line.

I worked Bo through the distraction using kibble to keep his focus. While I gave him the 'leave' command, marked his focus on me with the word 'yes' and fed him kibble, my family members used their bodies to put space between Bo and the dog. 

The handler of the barking and lunging dog stood in one place holding his dog's leash tightly. He didn't try to redirect his dog's attention, he didn't try to use body blocking to turn his dog around or put space between his dog and our team, nor did he try to use verbal commands or food to try to regain his dog's focus -- he simply held the leash tight. 
Placing On an Airplane

Despite the distraction, Bo maintained his focus on me and it was a non-event. But, the experience reminded me of a FaceBook post I once read about how to tell if a service dog is real. The writer asserted one need only look at how the human partner handles the dog to know if the service dog is real or fake. "Does she cue the dog, correct the dog, protect the dog? Does she pay attention to the dog's signals, moods, well-being?" The writer went on to list a number of other examples that illustrate the high level of attentiveness service dog handlers often demonstrate.

A real service dog may not be perfect 100% of the time; sometimes a service dog barks, gets distracted, or activated and doesn't behave to the standard of his training. How quickly a dog recovers and how well a handler manages the dog can be the distinguishing difference between a real and fake team. The following are some examples of what a real team may look like in an airport setting.

Placing Out of the Way of Traffic
A trained service dog will place out of the way of foot traffic by going 'under' a chair, bench or table. A trained handler will protect the dog's tail and body from being stepped on or bumped. In this picture, I'm using my foot to keep Bo's tail tucked tight to his body and to serve as a barrier from feet, luggage, wheelchairs or other moving objects that could harm or distract him. 

A service dog will place at the feet of its handler on an airplane. Bo holds a down stay on a flight, except for when he alerts. Before he alerts, he changes his position to a sit or stand. On our recent flights, Austin and I pre boarded the plane with Bo and sat in the bulkhead row. Our other family member joined us during general boarding. The bulkhead row is ideal because it provides more space for the dog and handler, however a service dog should also be able to place in a regular row with less space. 

We trained Bo for placing in tight spaces by having him load up into the wheel-well of our car and ride at our feet.  We also practiced placing in small spaces by having Bo load up in a cardboard box. 

Bo wearing a slip lead with no metal parts.
In preparation for taking Bo through airport security, we replace his gear containing metal parts (i.e., service dog vest, harness, flat collar and leash) with a slip lead made out of rope and a plastic loop. As we make our way through the line, we keep Bo in a heel position and use our bodies to block little humans from petting him, as well as wheeled luggage from bumping him. Once it's our turn to go through the security check point, Austin gives Bo the stay command, goes through the metal detector and then calls Bo through the detector. Bo does not get a security pat down because without his gear he doesn't set-off the metal detector. Austin however, gets his hands swabbed to test for traces of explosives.

Video: Austin and Bo Going Through Airport Security Checkpoint

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

It Takes Work Handling a Service Dog

I've said it before and I'll say it again: 

"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." 

Given this, I wasn't surprised when Austin told me he wanted to take Bo to school less often.

"Why," I asked. 

"It's a lot of work handling him in the cafeteria, Austin said. "He goes for the food on the floor and he doesn't always respond to my command to leave."  

In honesty, I noticed this problem a couple of weeks ago when I took Bo to school to watch Austin play in a basketball game. Bo seemed to go for every wrapper and food crumb on the floor and bleachers. Previously, Austin had mentioned Bo was eating food off the floor but I didn't understand the extent of the behavior until I was on the other end of the leash.

I've never considered Bo to have a strong leave command but he had never demonstrated the blatant disregard for the command that I witnessed at the game. It was clear to me Bo had been practicing 'floor surfing' at school. Austin had allowed him to get away with this behavior enough times at school that it became a default behavior  one that is not only inappropriate for a service dog, but also potentially life threatening.

So, in light of this situation we are putting a plan in place to work on re-training Bo on the leave command. I have a few ideas of how to tackle this problem but because I want expert guidance, I called our trainer Helen. We are going to train in the cafeteria of a local college to simulate the environment Austin is finding challenging. The session will involve Austin handling Bo and and me observing, while Helen works to re-teach boy and pup on how to achieve a strong leave.

Austin's really excited to meet with Helen. It's been two years since our last training session. As for me, I'm looking forward to watching boy and pup work under her direction. She is a gifted teacher and Austin is an eager learner. In fact, this morning he shared with me his intent to refine his handling skills and to really work with Bo on keeping a tight heel and a strong leave.

It takes work to handle a service dog. Training never ends for the pup or the human. I'm pleased Austin is mature enough to realize he and Bo have more work to do in order to make them the best team they can be. In fact, when I mentioned I'd send a note to his guidance counselor to let her know this new plan, Austin told me he already spoke to her. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Listening Dog

The other day I was reminded that Bo is a listening dog. Austin had just finished checking his blood sugar after a low alert from Bo. I asked Austin if he wanted to take glucose tablets or if he wanted me to get a juice. I was already on my way to the kitchen when Austin replied he wanted juice. I turned around to see Bo was behind me carrying a juice box. He had retrieved it from Austin’s nightstand where we always keep a juice box.

Bo has the 'get juice' command under good stimulus control  only retrieving a juice from the nightstand when given the command. When I had asked Austin if he wanted me to get a juice, Bo heard his command 'get juice' and responded as he has been trained. 

Related Video Posts: Retrieving a Juice Box on Command (from 10-19-2014)