The picture above was taken the very first day we met Major. What an emotional day that was. Exciting, scary, happy, it ran the gamut of emotions. We didn’t get to keep him that day, he was still very much in training, so as we watched him leave, we were also sad. But we knew he was still continuing his training of being a lifesaver for my daughter, and it was only a couple of months later before he was permanently placed with us.
Yesterday, we were invited to share in a very exciting day. Canine Hope for Diabetics hosted a small gathering of families waiting for DAD’s, and announced which dogs would tentatively be placed with those families. The dogs are still young and in training, which is why the placement is tentative. But going forward, these families will specifically train with “their” dogs, and when these dogs are ready to start doing some “sleepovers” they will go to their houses to see how they acclimate into their lives.
Needless to say, it was a very exciting, happy day. None of the families knew about this prior to arriving. Each family had a card, a color coded lab cookie (black or yellow), and a present at their seat. (We met at a fantastic Chinese restaurant, New Moon in Montrose, thank you Suarez family!) After we all chatted for awhile, Crystal announced that it was okay to open the cards. Inside each card was a Congratulations card with a couple of pictures of their dog on it. Watching all of the excitement brought tears to my eyes, and I already have my dog!
So why was I crying? Because I know this feeling. I have traveled this road. And I have some ideas to share. These families have just learned which DAD is going to help them. To give them back up. To keep their children (or themselves) healthier. Safer. Alive. Their isn’t much to be excited about with diabetes. To have an extra tool to manage this disease is exciting. There is a tiny sense of relief. For that tool to be an amazing dog, with all the benefits that come with having a dog is awesome.
So, to all the Canine Hope families that just had your tentative DAD assignments, CONGRATULATIONS!!! And please allow me a moment to bend your ear. These next few months will be exciting and busy. Life as you know it is about to change. Here are some things to consider.
Learn everything you can. Watch and ask. Whether you are with Tracy, Crystal, Johanna, Stefanie, another trainer, puppy raiser or a family that already has a dog in their home, ask questions. Watch how they handle the dogs. learn from them. There are NO stupid questions. These DAD’s are incredible tools, but they also eat socks. They have an amazing capacity to learn, and they love to have their ears rubbed. They will go with you everywhere, and they will poop on the school lawn in front of your child’s kindergarten class. They will save your child’s life, and chew on her Polly Pocket toys. They will alert to you in front of all your friends and impress them to no end, and they will want to snuggle with you under the covers on Sunday mornings. If you don’t know something (like is it okay to rub their bellies or what kind of food do they eat) ask. Now is the time. Before the dog comes home.
Prepare your house. You have time, but there are things you can start doing now to be prepared, especially if at some point you may get to test run the dog at home for a few days. Get the tools you need. Things like a crate, food bowls, leash, reward toys, collapsible water bowls for traveling . And baby proof (I mean lab proof) your house. Make sure your trashcans have lids. Make sure you have a proper receptacle for dog food, (Labs can eat their way through a 40 pound bag). Make sure there is a nice quiet spot in the house to put their crate so they can relax. Talk to their handler and find out what kind of reward treats they like, if they have a special toy, do they prefer a cot or a dog bed? Make sure any food you store in low cabinets is moved up or childproofed. (Many of the dogs know how to open/close cabinet doors). Fix gates and mend fences. Figure out how your dog will travel with you.
Make sure you share with the trainers what type of activities your family does. Do you have a pool? Does your child play soccer? Are you hanging out at a barn? Do you run marathons? The trainers can start working very specific scenarios with these dogs. Training can include some people kicking a ball in front of the dog, or taking them to a horse barn, or making sure they place quietly next to a pool (remember Labs love water). Do you travel to school on a bus? Take a subway to work everyday? Great things to share with a trainer. Do you have cats in the house? Chances are very good that they already know all of this. They have done the home checks, you have been in the process for a while now, but it doesn’t hurt to double and triple check.
Know that these dogs require structure to their day. They are different from your pets, and spend their day differently too. They require crate time, place time, extended time on a stay. They require daily exercise and training. If you have other pet dogs, they mat even require supervision when out in the yard. And if you are just running to the store real quick, these aren’t the types of dogs that should just be left out in the back yard. Learn how to properly play fetch with them. Start acquiring tools for scent training. Know and understand that the hard work is just about to begin. That even if these dogs are “finished dogs”, your work and dedication is required to keep them working. Start thinking about ways to integrate training into your day. Do you live on a big piece of property? You can practice heeling on the way to the mailbox. Do you like to walk to a local coffee shop? Great time to do some obedience work. Do you go grocery shopping every Monday? A great time to work on public access. And let me let you in on a little secret. EVERYTHING is a training opportunity. Everywhere you go, every time you go there, something will be different, and you will be able to either train for something new, or practice something they already know.
Understand that diabetes is a disease that affects the whole family. And that these dogs will become part of that family. The whole family needs to be involved. They all need to learn how to handle the dog, be comfortable with the dog, and reward the dog. Perhaps your 2 kids are outside playing in the yard with the dog, and your type 1 has a severe low issue. The dog will hopefully feel comfortable and confident enough to alert to the other child, and that child can go get help. Get everyone involved as much as possible, and make sure they know how to properly reward the dog.
Know that these dogs are not your replacement. They are an extra tool to help you. But they will not take over the night shift. They will not be 100% accurate. And they will occasionally miss. They will catch highs and lows that you never would, at times you would never think to check, but then sometimes they are tired from chasing the kids around and swimming in the pool, and will sleep through a high at 2am. Consider them redundant back up systems. Hopefully, if all works well, if you miss your 1am alarm and sleep through it, or turn it off and fall right back to sleep, at 1:15 you will get a cold nose in your back, waking you to say “go check the kid”. That is when this works exactly like it’s supposed to. But ultimately, you are responsible for your child’s welfare. You wouldn’t leave your 5 year old at home by himself with the dog babysitting, would you? If the dog alerts, check and verify. If the dog doesn’t alert, check and verify. If you wake up every night at 12 and 3, keep doing that, and expect your dog to wake you up at 1 and 5. But don’t place your child’s life in the paws of your dog. That’s just not fair.
And please know that this may be intimidating for you. Maybe you’ve had dogs all your life, or maybe this will be you very first one. Either way, this is a new experience. You’ve heard the stories about how easy it is to create an expensive pet, how much work they are. Your scared of “breaking them” or ruining them. Trust me, I’ve called Crystal many times to say “I broke your dog!”. It’s going to happen. We’re not dog trainers. We have brought these animals into new scenarios. All of you (dogs and people) are learning. Don’t be scared to communicate. Call, email or text your trainer. And do it as soon as you feel you have an issue. The trainers have been there, experienced it, and know how to fix it (or you 😉 ), but they can’t fix what they don’t know about. So communicate, communicate, communicate.
And as for these dogs? Know that they love to work. They love to play. They love to be loved. They are coming from trainers that love them and care for them. That want to see them succeed. If you have been researching and learning about dogs, you may think that it’s not okay to pet your dog. To love on him. But within the family, please know that these dogs excel when they have a bond with you. A love and a trust. If they make you happy, show them. If they don’t make you happy, show them what makes you happy. If you are building structure and place work and training into your day, some off time to sit by your side and get an ear rub or a belly scratch is expected. Required. Necessary. And if the dog is protecting your children, it is okay for that child to use the lab as a pillow. A security blanket. A friend. These dogs are family. And more so than any pet you have ever had. But remember, if they structure and training goes away, it all falls apart.
Congratulations to all the new families. I look forward to watching your teams grow and develop, and hear amazing stories about all the awesome things your dogs are doing! And thank you for letting me be a small part of your exciting day!
And fully expect 6 months or a year down the road to realize that these dogs have completely changed your lives in ways you never thought possible. I can’t even begin to express the ways Major and Raven have enhanced mine, and allowed me to meet all of you!