Training My Own PTSD Service Dog
A Little Background About me
My name is Steven and I am 54. I have multiple physiological and psychological issues and have been on disability since 1994. I have had anxiety/panic and depression issues throughout my life. I have had various diagnoses depending on the doctor at the time, but they more or less followed the same theme.
As time went by, I would go through periods where I did fairly well and times when I was affected and quite limited by these issues. My overall trend though was getting progressively worse where I was avoiding things that caused me to have anxiety and panic attacks. That worked well for a while (a number of years actually), but as time went on, the list of things that caused me to have anxiety and panic issues grew. I kept up my avoidance behavior as I learned what did and did not cause me anxiety.
What started in the beginning as helpful, changed into something that became limiting. I was becoming anxious about so many things that I started to develop agoraphobia where I would only leave the house when I absolutely had to and then only for very short trips to the market or the doctor, etc. This trend continued and I began to develop a social phobia where I couldn’t be around people for any length of time without it causing me great anxiety. The only place I felt safe was when I was at home.
This didn’t help my depression at all, but getting out caused extreme anxiety, so I was caught trying to decide which was the least of the two evils. I have never been particularly social, but there was a time when I did enjoy getting out and doing things.
A lot of the major shift really started taking hold after I bought the house where I am now living. That was in 2006. After the first year, I really started to stay home most of the time and I didn’t have many visitors either. I had my dogs and they kept me company and gave me comfort. I have always known how beneficial animals and in particular, dogs are for people and my dogs were of great help to me. They were always there and never judged me. They gave me love and attention. I would often take one of them with me in my truck when I had to go to the store or something like that to help keep me as calm as possible for as long as possible. Because my dogs were pets, I knew I couldn’t take them into the places I had to go, so I had an alarm installed in my truck, I also had an auto-start/run package added so that I could have the A/C on and the truck running so that my dogs would be comfortable while I was in the store. I could remote start the truck and have it locked and all of the controls in the truck were not functional in this mode so there was no possibility of the dog accidentally putting it in gear or something. That was one of the best decisions I had made.
As time progressed, my world started getting smaller and smaller to the point where I just stayed at home and maybe 2 or 3 times a month, I would go out briefly to the store (only because I ran out of something). At the same time, because I was not getting out, my depression was worsening. I was going down into a deep dark hole and I didn’t know how to stop it. The medications I was taking were only helpful to a point and could only see things getting progressively worse.
Early in 2013, for reasons I still don’t understand, a lot of memories from my childhood started coming up. Through those memories and through therapy, I was diagnosed with Complex PTSD. The more memories that came, the more things and behaviors in my life started to make sense. Before this, I just had anxiety/panic and depression with no known cause.
When I was diagnosed is also when I learned about Psychiatric Service Dogs. Up until that point, I only knew about the better-known sight, hearing and mobility dogs. I also knew about Therapy Dogs used in hospitals and nursing homes and helping children with reading and emotional issues.
Always being a dog lover and having them most of my life, I was very interested in checking into getting a Service Dog for my PTSD. I was lucky and ran into a man with his PTSD Service Dog who was training with someone who specialized in training dogs for people with “invisible disabilities”. He gave me her card and I contacted her. It turned out that she only lived about 4 miles from me and she had started doing this because she herself had PTSD and other health issues.
I, of course, was very excited to hear about this and so I went to meet with her and learn about her program and more about Psychiatric Service Dogs.
I only knew of Service Dogs that were trained at a training facility and then purchased or given to someone who needed them. The dogs were trained for the individual’s particular disability.
I knew that I couldn’t afford to get a pre-trained Service Dog and since I was not in the military, I didn’t qualify for any assistance through any VA source.
The trainer that I spoke to said that some of her clients found their dogs through Craigslist or got them from local animal shelters. I decided to try that route since I had a lot of experience from my 10 years of volunteering as a Dog Walker at the local SPCA where I used to live and my experience having dogs since childhood. I knew how to train dogs as pets, so I knew with the proper guidance, I could train a service dog myself which is what I wanted. I wanted to be involved from the start. Training your own dog strengthens the bond between you and your dog.
My Hunt for a Service Dog
I started my hunt for a suitable service dog…one that is under a year of age to get the maximum amount of time from the dog for service work and one that had the right temperament. I found a couple of dogs and tried them out. It turned out that they were not a good match for me, but my trainer was able to place them as Service Dogs in Training with some of her other clients that were also looking for a service dog. They worked out perfectly for them.
It is very important to match the dog to your lifestyle. If you are active, then a sedentary breed wouldn’t be the best choice for you, and the reverse is true. The trainer gives a temperament test to any prospective dog to make sure that they would be appropriate for service dog work. If you get a puppy, there is a puppy temperament test that is commonly used called the Volhard Puppy Aptitude Test which is given at 7 weeks of age.
After my two not so successful attempts at finding a rescue dog to be my service dog, I decided that I would start saving up money to be able to purchase a puppy. Being on an SSDI income, it is difficult to be able to save very quickly and so I started selling things that I had to raise the money for a dog.
I had decided that I wanted a Golden Retriever because they are my favorite breed and they are often used in service work because of their temperament.
Choosing a Breeder
Choosing a good breeder is of the utmost importance, especially when you are looking to get a service dog. I contacted the local Golden Retriever Club and asked for breeders that had or would be having puppies. I was given a number of breeders to contact. There are usually local clubs that specialize in specific in most areas, so if there is a specific breed that you are interested in, you can check into a club that is local to you. Keep in mind that some breeds are more suited for service dog work than others. The size or the breed doesn’t matter. There are service dogs that go from Shih Tzu’s to Saint Bernard’s and everything in between. The key is the proper temperament. You want to get a dog that has a nice even temperament that isn’t too shy or too aggressive. You want a confident dog. Some things can be taught, but the dog needs to have the right basics to start with or you will not have any luck in training them as a service dog.
When you contact the breeders, you want to tell then that you are interested in this dog to be a service dog. I will warn you upfront that some breeders don’t like to deal with that. I don’t understand their reasoning, but they are out there. If you understand the breed enough to know that they generally have the right temperament for service work, then I leave it up to you whether you tell the breeder the dog will be used as a service dog or not.
Hopefully, you will find a breeder that doesn’t have any problems with placing one of their puppies for service work and will work with you to help you pick the right puppy out of a litter. I was very lucky with the breeders I chose. I chose to tell them I was looking for a puppy to be my service dog and they had placed service dogs before, so they were great with it. I also chose them because they used techniques of raising their puppies from the Puppy Prodigy Program where the puppies are handled from day one and as they grow are introduced to new sights and sounds and are socialized with trusted people (usually friends of the breeders) to get the dogs used to new things. They played sounds of thunderstorms and traffic noises to get them used to those things.
They brought me in at week 4 to start to socialize the puppies and get to know each of them and watch them as they progressed. It was my hope as well as the hope of my trainer, the breeders that a puppy would choose me because the bond with a service dog, especially a psychiatric service dog is extremely important. I started to go up twice a week from week 4 to week 9 when I brought my puppy home. The other people that were getting puppies out of the litter were brought in a week 5 to help socialize them and so they could see the puppies develop. My breeders went the ultimate step in giving me pick-of-the-litter because I was getting a service dog. I can’t say that would be the rule, but since they were not keeping any of the puppies of this litter, they gave me that choice.
From the very first visit, one particular puppy paid more attention to me than the rest. Yes, they all paid attention to me, but she paid special attention and I had noticed her as well as there was just something about her that I couldn’t put my finger on, but I was drawn to. As the weeks passed, she continued to pay special attention to me. I socialized every puppy and watched them all, but she kept catching my eye. By the 6th week, I was becoming pretty sure she would be the one, but I wanted to give it as much time as I could to be sure because this was such an important decision.
At week 7 (day 49 to be exact), my trainer came up and gave her the Volhard Test and she did great in it as I knew she would. In fact, most of the puppies from that litter I think would have done well in that test because of all of the work that the breeders put into the litter. The puppies were also socialized with the 6 adult dogs the breeders had which are invaluable since dogs can teach each other things that we can’t, like dog etiquette and boundaries and things like that.
After the test, I made my decision known, not that it was any surprise to the breeders. So then they let everyone know which puppy they would be getting. If you have good breeders, they will know the puppies better than anyone else and they will have also taken the time to get to know you and your lifestyle and what you plan to do with your puppy so they can match the right puppy to the right person/family. Everyone was thrilled at the choices the breeders made and of course I was ecstatic.
At week 8, the breeders had their vet come out and give all of the puppies a checkup, dewormed them and gave them their first puppy vaccine. We picked up our puppies just before week 9. I know a lot of people want their puppies as soon as possible, but those early weeks are extremely important to the development of the puppies and to be taken away from their litter-mates too early is not good for them at all. You would be robbing them of lessons that they can only learn there and at that time. After that time, the opportunity is lost…so be patient. Allow the puppies the time they need to be with their litter-mates and mom and don’t take them home too early. You will have a lifetime with them. I can’t stress that enough.
So now, I had my puppy at home. Because your puppy isn’t fully vaccinated, it is critical that you do not let your puppy socialize with any dog that isn’t fully vaccinated and you do not want you puppy to go to a park or anywhere that other dogs go because their immune system isn’t fully developed yet and there are diseases out there that can kill a puppy like Parvovirus.
I checked with my vet to find out what was prevalent in my area and Parvovirus is, so I literally carried my puppy around everywhere I took her, including to the vet where I didn’t let her touch the floor. I wanted to give her exposure to as many things as possible as early as possible but in a safe way. I took her to my doctor’s office and to my therapist’s office.
I took her in pet-friendly stores where I could put her in the seat of a shopping cart (that, by the way, isn’t covered by the ADA.) In fact, the ADA only covers full service dogs, not service dogs in training. Service dogs in training are regulated by each state. In Oregon where I live, for instance, they have given the exact same rights/privileges to service dogs in training as full service dogs which is a wonderful thing as real-world experience is the best experience. You do have to know your dog though, and it is up to you to be responsible to your dog as well as the public and not create a bad situation by either taking your dog/puppy into an unsafe environment or if your dog exhibits any kind of aggressive behavior, you need to have that completely under control BEFORE you take your dog out into public. That is not to say, you won’t have instances where your dog barks a couple of times. In fact, sometimes, a service dog is trained to bark to alert their partner of a medical issue or in the case of a hearing dog, to let the partner that there is someone there. It all depends on each individual situation.
Basic Service Dog Training
Training your dog/puppy is one of the most basic and important things you can do. It will not only teach the dog manners and commands, but it will strengthen the bond between you and your dog. Having a strong bond with a service dog is extremely important.
Take as many classes you need (or want) to teach your dog the basics and to socialize your dog. They can be a lot of fun and don’t be afraid to take the same class more than once. There will always be different dogs in the class and it will give you and your dog that much more experience. I know depending on where you live there might only be a few training resources available to you, but utilize what you have available. If you like training your dog, you can even get into things like Rally or Obedience or Agility for Competition. There are usually AKC or UKC sponsored classes available that are given by local chapters of each organization. Training can be great fun and provide you and your dog a wonderful outlet to enjoy and learn from at the same time.
Besides the AKC and UKC sponsored classes, I know that PetSmart has classes, but I don’t know much about them. Also, so much depends on the trainer, so I can’t blankly say that all PetSmart Classes are good (or bad).
Currently. I have my dog Kaeley enrolled in the AKC STAR Puppy Class given by the local AKC Club. The next class is the CGC (Canine Good Citizen) Class. Your dog does not have to be a purebred to attend those classes and they are not very expensive (usually about $75.00 for an 8-week class which is really quite inexpensive considering that is 8 full hours of training over an 8 week period) but are exceptional beginning classes for both you and your dog.
I have been working with Kaeley quite a bit, especially since she is now fully vaccinated by taking her with me into stores and to my doctors and I have even taken her into the hospital when I was having problems. I only do this because she has already exhibited a lot of basic manners and is of no danger to anyone, other dogs or disruptive to any situation I and taken her to. Be sure, especially in the beginning that you start out slowly and choose places that are safe for your dog. You want all of these experiences to be positive ones. Having a well-socialized dog is extremely important regardless of whether they will be a service dog or a pet.
When her service dog Training officially starts on the 8th of Sept., I will stop socializing her with people and have her concentration solely on me. Because I want to be able to allow her to be a dog as well as a service dog, I am planning to use her vest as the cue to let her know that when the vest is on, she is working and when it is off, she is a dog and can play. Having a “work” and “release” command is also good to have if you just want to have a tag instead of a vest perhaps when it is very hot outside.
Know the Laws
The ADA DOESN’T REQUIRE ANY IDENTIFICATION OR SPECIAL ATTIRE, like a service dog vest. Personally, I like having the service dog vest as it clearly shows that Kaeley is a service dog. My vest has a patch that says, “ Service Dog in Training”. As far as what a business can ask and cannot ask is quite simple. You can only be asked two questions.
- Is your dog is a service dog to help you with a disability?
- What task does the dog perform?, i.e. the dog alerts me when I am becoming anxious or that my blood sugar is low (for Diabetics), or the dog helps steady me when I am not balanced.
There are many things a dog can be trained to do and they are all dependent on your particular disability and special training in these areas is what differentiates a service dog from a pet dog.
You can find out about ADA Laws at ADA.gov. There are also many organizations out there that can be very helpful for information and resources. There are also many organizations that are downright fraudulent and try to take advantage of those who don’t know the laws. DO YOUR HOMEWORK and check things out in as many places as you can. Compare information. Since I am new to the service dog world, I am learning something every day. This is an area where you need to be your own advocate and be able to handle any question that arises, whether it is regarding a challenge or just someone wanting to know about the laws. It is up to you and your comfort level on how in-depth you want to get.
You can be very instrumental in helping people that don’t realize the many types of service dogs that are out there. You might be the first person that they found the courage to approach. Use your new knowledge and the fact that you will gain the attention of many people as you are out with your service dog or service dog in training. With my experience so far, my interaction with people has been really positive. Always present yourself and your dog in a positive way and leave a good impression because you are laying the groundwork for the next Service Dog Team that goes through there. Be a responsible person and keep things like poop bags and moist towels on you whenever you are out. Get a “bait bag” to carry treats. Many of them have additional pockets where you can keep a small supply of cleaning supplies if your dog has an accident in a building. Your dog should be housebroken before ever taking it into any public place, but just like people, dogs can be ill or have needs that just pop up even if you potty your dog regularly and you need to be able to take care of it. You can also carry treats to help with training your dog in these bags. I have found them to be invaluable and always have mine on when I take Kaeley out.
There are a number of organizations that can be very helpful in providing resource information, member support through hosting a private support listserv (which acts sort of like a Forum but sends out individual emails as each post is made), legislative notices and involvement as well as numerous other benefits. I belong to a group called Psychiatric Service Dog Partners (PSDP). They have been extremely supportive and have been a great resource when I have been doing research or wanted advice on certain training techniques. They are becoming a non-profit organization and basically already run like one. They are free to join, you only need to email them and they will call you and tell you about the organization and see if they would be of benefit to you. I wouldn’t be nearly as far along if it weren’t for their help and the help of my trainers.
Training yourself, with the help of a trainer or have your dog trained
You can train your service dog yourself, train your dog with the help of a trainer or have your dog trained for you. Each one of those options has its own advantages and costs. Obviously training the dog yourself is the least expensive option and if you are confident in your abilities and do your homework, you can find books and DVDs on the subject and train your dog so it can pass the Public Access Test (PAT). THERE IS NO REASON THAT YOU CANNOT TRAIN YOUR OWN SERVICE DOG. Just like you can train your dog to sit or lay down, you can train it to do what you need it to do for your particular disability, whether it is to alert you to increasing anxiety or to take your medication or you need it to steady you or pick up something you dropped. All of that behavior is trainable. I am not an expert on how all of it works, especially the more medical side of training, but I do know that dogs sense things we ourselves don’t. They can detect different odors that could signal a drop in blood sugar for instance. They can recognize when you are getting stressed and you can train them to “snap you out of it” or to remove you from the situation/find the nearest exit. You can train them to get between you and someone else that is getting too close to you.
I am using a trainer, Dogs for Invisible Disabilities, to help me because I am somewhat dyslexic and don’t read and retain well and I also have major issues with self-esteem that can take me way down and feel like I am ruining everything when the fact is, everything is fine and I am overreacting. For me personally, having a trainer there to help me and be that third party to be able to see what is really going on is very important. That is me though, and you could be totally fine in those areas. So much of this is individualized. That is another reason I think being involved with the training of your dog is important. It allows you to see exactly what is going into it and how to do it and why certain things work and others don’t. Having a trainer for me also gives me access to different thoughts and from someone with a lot more experience and training than I have.
You can do what I am doing and work with a trainer, but still do most of the work yourself and at the end of the training period, they can administer the PAT.
The last option, which of course it the most expensive is to give your dog to someone to train and return it to you trained and ready for you to do your part of the learning so that you can take the PAT as a team. Just so you know, the PAT is NOT required for service dog work. It is, however, a good measurement of how well you and your dog are doing and if it is truly ready to be a Full Service Dog.
All of this depends on your comfort level and how much research you want to do. I recommend that you learn the laws regardless of how your dog is trained. If you are ever challenged, you need to be able to respond properly and correctly. Knowing your rights and the rights of your service dog is imperative, so doing your homework there is invaluable. I am not saying that you have to become a lawyer, but being well versed in your state laws regarding service dogs in training and service dogs, and knowing the ADA Laws is something that you do need to know.
I am not trying to direct you in any specific direction. I am simply trying to show you the options that exist and tell you why I made the decision that I made. If any of this information is helpful, use it to get what you need…anything else, you can disregard.
One thing to be aware of is that until you and your dog become a Full Service Dog Team you will not have the protection of the ADA law, only state law and as I mentioned, that varies by state. If you choose this route, you can do the training which usually takes between 1 and 2 years, then you and your dog, as a team take the PAT from someone or an organization trained to administer the test. Keep in mind that there are no organizations that are “certified” to administer the PAT regardless of what they might say or what you might hear. Once your dog is able to pass a PAT and assist you with your disability is when you can start calling your dog a Full-Service Dog and have the ADA protection.
I hope that you have found beneficial information in what I have written. As I said, I am very new to this and am learning every day. I have days where Kaeley and I make great strides and others where we seem to stand still. That is natural and things like training are cyclical. I was told by someone that in dog training, “slow is fast”…and I can see that is true. The younger your dog is the shorter their attention span will be, just as it is with a child. It is better to do a few 5-minute sessions per day sometimes that try to do an hour of training all at once, especially if you are training a puppy. I know from the classes I take Kaeley to, that by the end of that hour, she is tired and wants to either play or rest.
Always be attentive to your dog and give your dog everything you can from proper nutrition and veterinary care to proper socialization and exposure to other people of all ages, genders, and types as well as other safe dogs. If you do these things, you will be rewarded beyond your imagination. Just remember everything takes time.
My best wishes to all of you and good luck with whatever choice you choose.
Diabetic Alert Service Dogs & Diabetes
November is National Diabetes Month and I wanted to take this opportunity to raise public awareness by talking a bit about what diabetes is and how service dogs can play an important role.
WHAT IS DIABETES?
There are different types of diabetes. They are designated as Type 1 (insulant-dependent diabetes or juvenile-onset diabetes) and accounts for about 5% of all diabetes cases. Type 2 (non-insulant-dependent diabetes mellitus or adult-onset diabetes) which accounts for the majority of all diabetes cases covering 90%-95% of all cases. Its distinction is when your body produces insulin, but either doesn’t make enough or what it does make isn’t used well by your body which causes a buildup of sugar in your blood. Gestational diabetes is a form of diabetes that only occurs in pregnant women. If not properly treated, it can cause problems with mothers and their babies. This accounts for 2% – 10% of all pregnancies and usually resolves when a pregnancy is over. There are more rare types of diabetes that are caused by specific genetic syndromes, drugs, infections, surgeries, and other illnesses and may account for 1% – 5% of all diabetes cases.
In all cases of diabetes, blood glucose levels are higher than normal. Many of the foods we eat are turned into glucose, or sugar to be used by our bodies for energy. The organ that is responsible for making insulin is the pancreas, which lies near the stomach. If you have diabetes, it will be classified by one of the definitions above.
There is also Pre-diabetes which is described by raised levels of your blood glucose level, but not to the extent of being able to be classified as diabetes. One in three American adults have pre-diabetes and of those people, the majority don’t know it. Excessive weight is a major cause of pre-diabetes and diabetes. Of those people who do not lose weight and only do moderate exercise will develop Type 2 diabetes within three years.
Diabetes can lead to serious medical complications such as heart disease, kidney failure, blindness and amputation of extremities such as the toe, foot or even leg. Diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States.
GENERAL INFORMATION ON INVISIBLE DISABILITIES
I would like to cover one of the lesser-known types of service dogs that would fall under the larger umbrella of the Medical Alert Type of Service dogs. Since diabetes is an “ invisible disability ”, (a disability that is not readily apparent, such as by the use of a wheelchair or other medical apparatus which makes a disability self-evident). It is one that I would like to highlight here in the interest of public awareness and education.
Having an invisible disability myself, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), I see and sometimes hear what and how some people think about and react to me having a dog accompanying me into places of business. Their impression often seems to be that I am just bringing my pet dog into stores because I want her to be around me.I have found by talking to people, that they don’t automatically think of all of the different types of disabilities that are out there and how service dogs can and do play very important roles in either mitigating a person’s disability or alerting to them so that the person with the disability has the opportunity to take some kind of action, whether it is to take medication, get to a safe place, remove yourself from a situation or alert others of a medical problem.
The majority of people are very familiar with Guide Dogs, mobility dogs and sometimes even hearing dogs for those who are deaf or extremely hard of hearing. Those types of service dogs have been around the longest and are usually not given a second thought.
Having a disability that isn’t readily apparent can be much more difficult because for some reason, some people seem to find it necessary and even believe that it is their duty to approach/confront you and inform you that you shouldn’t be bringing your “ pet” into a place of business and this includes business owners and staff who are not always up to date on the most current laws pertaining to Service dogs who have been given special access rights through the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as state and local laws.
You can see the ADA Laws and definitions by going to their website at ADA and Service animals. “ Beginning on March 15, 2011, only dogs are recognized as service animals under titles II and III of the ADA ”. The ADA does have a special provision for miniature horses as Service animals and can be found by following the same link above to the ADA. Certain limitations apply.
Service dogs in training definitions and access rights are not currently covered by the ADA and the ADA has left it up to the individual states to regulate the rights of service dogs in training.
Living in Oregon, I will use their laws as an example as each state has varying laws defining and pertaining to Service dogs and Service dogs in Training.
You can read the Oregon Laws pertaining to the definition of a service animal and a service animal in training and their laws as they pertain to public access by clicking on Oregon Laws on Service animals. I used the term “animals” instead of “dogs” because Oregon State allows for more than just dogs to be recognized as legitimate Service animals.
If a business owner or staff member tries to deny you access to their business where the public is allowed free access, they are in violation of either Federal and/or State Laws.
This is called a Public Access-Challenge, something that you, as the handler/partner of the Service dog need to be prepared to appropriately address by being very familiar with the most current laws, including federal, state and local laws pertaining to service dogs and service dogs in training.
It is very important for you to always be in control and calmly provide accurate information to the person or people that are creating the Public Access Challenge . Getting upset and ranting will not help you. Sometimes it is as simple as them lacking the knowledge of current laws and it can be extremely helpful if you carry information with you such as the cards I describe below to be able to provide to people in these situations.
There are business card size, double-sided cards covering ADA Laws which you can hand out and also plastic, credit card sized cards that you can carry in your wallet or use as a tag on a Service dog Vest that explains the most important aspects of the ADA Laws regarding access rights and what a business owner can and cannot ask you. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find such a handy resource for state laws as there would have to be one for every state and I have found that in numerous cases, the laws are lengthy and do not lend themselves to abbreviated versions that could be easily printed on a business card sized card. Having a copy of your state’s laws that pertain to Service animals can be very useful as a reference for people to look at. Keep in mind that some of these repositories are not always completely up to date as this takes a lot of time and effort when a state enacts new legislation.
CHOOSING A DIABETIC ALERT DOG
When choosing a Service dog for any given disability, sometimes it doesn’t matter what size or breed of dog is chosen. Basically, any breed, if they have the proper temperament, can be trained to be a Service dog.
Certain disabilities though are better suited for a particular size or breed. For instance, a Pekingese would not work very well for pulling a wheelchair or helping to stabilize someone with balance issues. A larger breed would be a better choice.
When looking at a dog for use as a diabetic Service dog, there are important considerations to keep in mind.
Since one of the main attributes that a dog possesses is their keen sense of smell. A dog can pick up on the subtle changes of a person’s body chemistry through scent. Dogs that are going to be used as Medical Alert Dogs for diabetes need foremost, after proper temperament, to possess a superior since of smell. Although most dog breeds can work in this area, there are some with naturally better abilities at scent work than others.
DIABETIC ALERT DOGS USE THEIR NOSE
Dogs inherently use their nose to explore the world they live in. This is evident from the very beginning, even before their eyes are open as puppies, to find their mother and the milk she provides. This continues on throughout their lives. They “see” the world through their noses before any other sense comes into play and they use their sense of smell more than any of their other senses.
This is what makes dogs good at tracking and why they are used so successfully for Search and Rescue or drug detection by law enforcement. The list is quite extensive, but this gives you the idea. There are many groups and organizations such as The National Association of Canine Scent Work (NACSW ) and K9 Nose Work that are specifically centered on a dog’s scent abilities. Some of them even use this attribute for games and competitions.
Besides these uses and activities, a dog’s scent ability plays a crucial role in detecting changes in a person’s body chemistry which, in the case of diabetics happens when their blood glucose level goes either too high or too low.
Before I go any further, I should continue what I had started about picking specific breeds for certain needs. Now, as it is true of all dogs, all dogs use their noses, but some are naturally better at using their nose than others. For instance, you might naturally think of breeds like Blood Hounds as having exceptional noses. There are many breeds that can be used as Medical Alert Dogs for diabetics. Sometimes within the same breed, some dogs are naturally better with their scent ability than other individual dogs of that same breed or even the same litter.
It is not necessary to have the dog breed that has the very best scent ability over all other breeds. What is necessary is that the specific dog you choose exhibits very good scent ability.
It is probably safe to say that brachycephalic breeds (dog breeds that have pushed in snouts) would not be a breed of choice for scent work because physiologically they do not have the same internal nasal surface area that a longer snouted dog naturally has, thus naturally limiting their ability in this area compared to other non-brachycephalic breeds.
Good scent ability is imperative for use as a medical alert service dog for use with diabetics. A dog can then be trained to alert to these changes so that the diabetic can either take medication which the dog can also help with by being trained to bring the needed medication to them or so that they can eat something that will mitigate the onset of a diabetic emergency which in the worst case can be life-threatening.
TRAINING A DIABETIC ALERT DOG
As I am sure you can imagine, training a dog to do scent work is not quite the same as teaching them to sit or lay down. This is a very specialized aspect of training that is necessary for a dog to be used as a Diabetic Alert Dog.
There are many different resources available to help you in training and honing a dog’s natural ability to work for the detection of body chemistry changes. There are individual professional dog trainers who specialize in doing this type of specialized training and of course, there are programs that teach your dog these capabilities. All of this depends on your comfort level in training dogs, financial ability and previous experience you have in training dogs in more familiar behaviors.
Some of the organizations I have listed above and many other similar organizations can be very useful in helping you to understand techniques to use to properly train your dog to alert to chemical changes in your body. They can also be something that you find you and your dog enjoys doing as a sport and anything that you can do to involve your dog in things where you are working together, strengthens the bond that is so important in a service dog/handler relationship.
I will include my Service dog Trainer, Suzanne Brean, CPDT-KA, APDT as a possible resource as she is specialized in training Service dogs for Invisible Disabilities which includes training dogs as Diabetic Alert Dogs. She might be able to assist you with your training or know of other resources that could be of help.
The method of training you prefer, whether it be by using the reward method, by giving a treat each time your dog performs the task you are training or Clicker training which involves clicking to mark the event and that is followed by a treat.
Those of you who have not tried or really even heard of Clicker training can learn a lot about it by clicking the link in the preceding paragraph. Those of you who are already familiar with Clicker training will already know how to mark the action and then follow the mark with a treat, gradually changing from a treat to praise and then by adding a word/command and finally you can start to phase out the use of the Clicker all together. In this case, however, your scent will be the “command” which will be addressed in the second part of this 2-part technique.
These are just two of the most common techniques used in modern, positive training methods commonly used today. Gone are the days of heavy-handed training methods that were primarily based on brute force and punishment. I am old enough to remember those methods from my childhood and training my first dog at the age of 13. It is not pleasant for your dog or for you. Positive training techniques are much more enjoyable and far more humane to your dog. You can even make games out of training that are both educational and rewarding.
A LITTLE BACKGROUND
DISCLAIMER: I want to stress that this is ONLY an example and I am not qualified to teach you to train your dog this behavior.
I will further preface this by saying that I am not a professional dog trainer, especially one that is so specialized. Most of this information was obtained from my Service dog Trainer, Suzanne, who I mentioned earlier. Although she is qualified to train this behavior and even though I got this information from her, do not try to do this on your own without a lot of your own research, by reading books specifically on this subject and/or watching DVDs specifically showing techniques like the ones that I am using as examples or others that you find useful.
I am not trying to give you an actual lesson on how to do this. I am just trying to give you an idea of the steps necessary to get the desired response. It is very important that you do not use this as your only resource for learning how to train behaviors such as this. You will need to either have very detailed books, DVDs or enlist the help of an experienced dog trainer who has a lot of experience doing this type of training.
It is very important when training behavior like this, you completely understand every aspect of it, because if you don’t you will not get correct and reliable results and in a case of medical issues such as diabetes, you cannot afford to make mistakes in training your dog to do such an important task.
The speed at which this goes will depend greatly on the individual dog, how young the dog is and how much you have already worked with him, training other commands/tasks.
This is not something that will be learned overnight. It will take weeks, if not months to go through all of the training steps properly, as you gradually head toward your goal of having your dog alert you to a variance in your blood glucose level.
Since diabetic Medical Alert Service dogs require training specific to this disability. I wanted to offer examples of techniques that can be used to train your dog to alert you when your blood glucose level is either too high or too low. Some people only want or need to be alerted to one of these conditions whereas others would like to be alerted to either variation separately.
You can decide to investigate these and other options further to decide which would work best for your situation. You can either train your dog to alert you to any variation and give you the same signal, which you can decide upon, or you can have them alert you with two different signals, one being for elevated blood glucose levels and the other being for lowered blood glucose levels. That would again be a personal preference and having been prediabetic myself, I know that you can pretty much tell whether your level is high or low, so if you are confident with monitoring your body and can differentiate the two, then you can choose to train just one signal and when alerted, you can test your blood glucose level to see how far it is from where it should be so that you can take the appropriate action.
ONE METHOD IN TRAINING A DIEABETIC ALERT DOG
There are essentially two parts to this training method, even if you are only going to train for one signal (four, if you are training for both a high signal and a low signal), although that might be unnecessarily complicated since you really just need advance warning of a potentially problematic change in your blood glucose level and you would presumably be testing your level whenever you are alerted, which would then definitively tell you whether you are high or low.
The first step in training this method is called targeting. This is where you are going to want your dog to signal you. As an example, your end goal might be to have your dog nudge your thigh to alert you.
There are, however many “baby-steps” in between the two larger steps. This involves getting your dog to first, look at your hand and when he does, (for the sake of saving space, I will just say) “treat”. If you are using a Clicker, you will know that the click comes first, to mark the event followed by a treat. When your dog looks at your hand, you treat. You do this for a number of times until your dog makes the connection that if he looks at your hand, a treat is coming.
After this is established, you move to the next phase, which is to have your dog touch your hand with his nose (it would be similar if you choose to have your dog “paw you”). You do this until your dog makes the connection that by touching your hand, a treat is coming. Then, you put a piece of tape on your hand and get your dog to touch the tape.
After that is established, you can put a piece of tape on your pants leg and work on getting your dog to connect the tape that he was touching on your hand that got him a treat to get that same treat when he touches the tape on your leg. Now you work to make sure that your dog completely understands that if he touches the tape on your leg, a treat is coming. After it is well established, you can remove the tape and do the same thing but now your dog is just nudging your pants leg/thigh.
The second part involves getting a container (ideally glass) with an inner lid with holes in it and a second outer lid to seal the container. Many spices come in containers like this. Make sure that whatever you use is completely cleaned and then thoroughly rinsed so that no scent is left in the container.
Now you want to get a couple of cotton balls and with one of them, you are going to swab your inner cheek. With the other cotton ball, you want to swab your underarm.
Whether you want your dog to signal you separately and in a different way or place on your body or you just want one signal for either variance, you will need two of these containers. One will contain swabs that you collect when your blood glucose level is high and the other will contain cotton swabs your collect when your blood glucose level is low. The difference comes if you want two separate signals or just one.
In either case, you need your dog to be able to identify both variations so he can appropriately alert you to the variance. These containers will last approximately a month before you need to change out the cotton balls with new ones you get from swabbing the same locations and be sure to swab only when you have a high and a low reading when you test your blood glucose level. Be sure to thoroughly clean out the containers and rinse them thoroughly before you put the newly swabbed cotton balls into the containers again.
Now that you have prepared the two containers. You want to have your dog sniff the container through the holes of the inner lid. You want to do this and then treat it. Continue doing this until he gets the idea that if he smells that scent he is going to get a treat. You want to do this with each container. You also want to concentrate on only one of the containers at a time so as not to confuse your dog. Work with the “high” one until he gets the connection. After he fully gets the connection, then do the same with the “low” container.
Then you are going to start putting these two behaviors together. What you want to do next is have your dog touch your pant leg when he smells the bottle. You can start by putting the bottle near your leg where he is used to nudging your leg. After a while, he will make the connection that if he smells that scent, he needs to nudge your leg. You train him to do this with both containers. Every time he does it right, you will give him a treat. After a period of time, you will start alternating between treats and praise. Eventually, you will give him only praise.
I hope that you have found this to be informative and helpful in understanding just a small part of what is involved in training a dog to do medical alert work for diabetes.
I hope that you understand that I am providing this information solely as general information and not as a lesson on how to train your diabetic alert dog. It is my hope that it will help you to better understand the process involved in this type of training. There would be certain similarities regarding other medical alert type service dogs, but the specifics would be specialized to them and the medical condition they alert to.
My best wishes to all of you and good luck in finding a well-suited diabetes medical alert service dog.
Diabetic Alert Dogs Better Than Tech Tools
With type 1 diabetes there is the endless monitoring of blood sugar levels, even at night, which can leave you sleep-deprived and add to an already stressful existence. Service dogs can be trained to sniff out unhealthy blood sugar levels in humans — and alert them 20 minutes before a glucose monitoring system can. This is very important because low blood sugar can result in a coma; high blood sugar over an extended period of time can lead to kidney, liver, eye damage or stroke. If proper measures are not taken, high and low blood glucose levels can lead to death. Amazingly, service dogs can be trained to alert diabetics before they are in serious danger. Humans have about 5 million nose receptors while dogs have about 250 million.
A 3-year-old girl in Texas who suffers from a rare form of infant diabetes wouldn’t be alive today if she didn’t have a diabetic alert dog. The little girl’s mother says their Diabetic alert service dog saved her daughter’s life on numerous occasions.
A diabetic alert dog became 3-year-old Faith’s constant companion. She has been a Type 1 Diabetic since she was 9 months old, and wouldn’t be alive without her service dog Ruby. Ruby is trained to detect drops in blood sugar levels, and Faith’s condition causes her blood sugar to reach dangerous levels up to 30 times each day. Ruby’s powers of detection are remarkable: the first night she spent with her new family, she alerted four times, saving Faith’s life.
Human noses can detect extremely high or extremely low blood sugar levels. High levels cause a sweet, fruity odor. With low blood sugar, the diabetic gives off an acetone smell similar to the odor of fingernail polish.
But diabetic service dogs can sniff out very subtle fluctuations in blood glucose levels and can be trained to alert the diabetic even if his blood sugar is within normal range but dropping.
When a trained Diabetic Service dog detects an imbalance, it will alert the diabetic by performing one or more various actions such as licking, nudging or barking. The Service Dog may also be trained to retrieve juice boxes, medicine or testing supplies. In a worst-case scenario, if the diabetic is unconscious, the service dog can be trained to call 911 on a special device that will leave a pre-recorded message informing emergency personnel that a diabetic incident has occurred.
Kitty was 6 when she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and went to have 2-3 seizures a week to having NONE in 3 and 1/2 years after getting her diabetic alert service dog Teddy from Wild Rse Kennels. The demand for these life saving diabetic service dogs is on the rise and trainers can’t keep up with the demand for them.