Once again, my track record for bursting into tears while talking about how amazing these dogs are, and all that they do for our family, is at 100%. If you were there, it was disjointed at best, and cut short as I couldn’t get through it. I always feel bad as I struggle with these. But I will give myself 1 compliment. I am passionate about what these dogs are capable of doing, both for diabetes, and for the general well being of their families. This is what my speech was supposed to sound like:
DAD Conference talk “Living with a DAD”
“I’m not going to talk to you today about all of the amazing alerts that we’ve gotten from our wonderful DAD’s today. If you have ever followed us on the web or at www.blackdogsrule.com, you already know how amazing our dogs are. If you’ve been to rally, or with us while we are out and about, or in our home, or even watched me speak here last year, then you’ve witnessed firsthand how amazing these dogs are.
For some of you, these 2 dogs may have been your first experience ever in this world of diabetic alert dogs. Or at least a first “REAL WORKING” dad experience. I know that Dorrie had just come out of a miserable experience with a different organization and it was here at this very camp 3 years ago that Major alerted on Luke for the first time.
At the Long Beach Aquarium, Raven was the first dog that Gonzo and his family ever worked with. They didn’t even have a pet dog at the time. She let them know that they could do this. At that same event, Major and Raven both alerted on Ava the first time we met her, they let her know she had a pump issue and wasn’t getting any insulin. So chances are if you are here, you know about the amazing things these dogs are capable of as it relates to diabetes. Something that doesn’t get talked about as much is how many other benefits these dogs provide.
One of the first things you realize when you have a dad is that these dogs like to work. They like to have a job, and if they are working for a child or teenager, they need to have energy and stamina. That means these dogs need exercise. Daily walks around the neighborhood, runs through the local park, retrieving in the back yard, swimming in the pool, or some combination of all of these things help these dogs stay in shape. But guess who else benefits? These dogs create a reason to put on your sneakers and get outside and move. Exercise is good for all of us. Stress relief, weight loss, lowered blood sugars, bonding with the dog, training that doesn’t feel like work, all kinds of wonderful things come from taking the dog for a walk or some exercise.
Mental health is also as important as physical health. And this may be where these dogs excel. After a rough day at work, or a math test that kicked your butt at school, maybe your crush at school said something mean, or your favorite band broke up. Nothing beats coming home to a happy dog, wagging it’s tail and making you feel like the most important person in the world. Their unconditional love provides such a magical service to us that is almost as important for our general health as alerting to a low or high. Did your best friend start dating your ex? Did your boss cream you at your last review? Just feel like you need a hug and someone to listen to you? To really hear what you have to say, and not be judgmental about it? And know that they will never tell another soul? These dogs are perfect for that. You always know that when you come home, at least 1 living thing in the house will be happy to see you.
What about being home sick. Had a restless night dealing with highs and ketones? A stubborn low that won’t come up? Suffering with a cold or the flu? Just need a place to rest your head for awhile? A lab pillow is as good if not better than the finest down pillow money can buy. Got the chills and can’t get warm? Snuggling up with your dog is a great way to warm up, and has less carbs than Hot Chocolate.
And then there is the life experience our kids get having to be responsible for another living being, the lessons they learn having to care and work with these dogs is also invaluable. Having to feed, bathe, train, clean up after, exercise, and care for these dogs are important life lessons that we get to watch our kids learn.
But one of the most amazing benefits that our family has experienced? Our daughter not only has type 1 diabetes, but also is on the autism spectrum, dealing with Aspergers. Her ability to socialize, interact, and communicate with others is awkward at best. Eye contact, making friends or communicating with people older than her, being extremely literal in her use of language, all of these things are issues that she has to deal with. People with Aspergers also are often hyper focused on a subject, hobby, or activity.
But then we started working rally with Raven…
Now let me tell you a little story about Raven. For those of you that know us and have been here before, Major was our first, and he is the one that normally comes with us when we go out. He loves to work in public. The store, the mall, Disneyland, doesn’t matter. But he doesn’t alert at night. And we have tried EVERYTHING to get him to work. So one day, I’m talking to Crystal, and I asked her about Raven. When we first came into the program, Raven was a DAD in training. But somewhere along the way, she had worked her way out of the program, and was most likely going to be repurposed. She was put on the back burner. But I remember hearing about how good she was at night alerting. So I asked Crystal if we could borrow her. I wanted to see if Major would feel like he was being challenged, a little DAD competition, and see if he could learn from Raven. So we brought her in for what was supposed to be a couple of weeks.
Turns out it wasn’t nearly going to be that simple. Raven didn’t start alerting right away. As a matter of fact, she was at our house for almost a month, and we had tried every possible configuration of dog placement, people placement, training, sleeping arrangement, dog bed, kuranda with cover, kuranda with no cover, on bed, off bed, in crate, exercise, high value reward, whatever, you name it we tried it. By that time, Major knew there was no need to worry, his position was safe, so there was no competition.
Raven not only wasn’t alerting for us at night, she would also wander the halls looking for trouble. One of the trainers suggested we tether her to a kuranda at night.
Bingo! We hit on the perfect scenario of dog placement, kuranda temperature comfort, scent, etc, and Raven never looked back.
In talking with Crystal, she knew that our household, our needs/requirements, and our love for dogs all were a perfect fit for what Raven had to offer, and so she never left.
And she IS a perfect fit in our household. Why? Because I’m convinced that Raven has the doggie equivalent of Aspergers, just like her girl. She too has issues in social situations. She doesn’t make friends easily. She tends to speak out of context. She doesn’t have a filter. She can be obsessive and hyper focused on an object. And she is VERY literal when it comes to commands.
Raven became a contributing member of our household. And all though we knew Raven had a very specific role in our house, I always thought she could do a little more. She is a REALLY smart dog. Almost scary smart as you can actually see her working out problems and finding solutions. But she could be a little unpredictable at times, something that concerned me and I was worried about a then 10 year old handling her. Canine Hope had started these rally training sessions, a great place to work on obedience and socialize your pup. But at that time, rally practice was held on Wednesday nights, about 60 miles from home, and for a very narrow window of time. It was really tough for us to ever get out there after work and school, and have enough time to maximize our session. Then you add in the cost for gas, dinner on the road, and paying for both dogs, so we didn’t go very often, and never felt like we got much from it.
Rally got moved to a new venue, a new day, and a new time. Once it got moved to Sundays, we were able to start attending regularly. Just before that happened, we had been to an AKC event to watch Stef and Able compete in rally, and Stella had shown an interest in doing something similar. Canine Hope had also started to get serious about competing with their litter of homegrown pups so the timing was perfect.
I always assumed it would be Major that we would compete with, but he has one big flaw. He is REALLY good at his job. When Stella has a blood sugar issue, he will use any means necessary to get to me or my wife, including bolting from the ring. His job has always been to come get us. But Raven is much more pliable. She will alert to Stella, but when she is actually in the ring, either at practice or in competition, she can focus on the task at hand. Stella knows when there is an issue as Raven will be slow to react, often times requiring multiple commands to finally get it, appearing disobedient, so we work REALLY hard to make sure before competition Stella is between 100 and 120.
So we made the decision to use Raven as Stella’s rally partner. Raven has a great foundation in obedience work. And Stella at that point had a great foundation in handling. I also felt that both Raven and Stella could benefit in the extra, more structured training. And with the possibility of competing, Stella had huge renewed interest in doing the work. So over this past year, that is exactly what we did. And this team progressed from their RN (rally novice) title, all the way through to RE (rally excellent), entering in 9 events, and not only qualifying in every one, but never finishing lower than 4th place.
So how does this help with Stella? Well, it gave her something to be excited about. Something she was good at. And something she was able to discuss at length with many adults here. Just ask Jo-Anne, who was the first to notice the difference in her. Or Lori when she came down to work RJ at one of the last competitions. Keri and many of the other people at rally had also noticed. Stella had become talkative, animated, full of knowledge. She shed her shell. It was a pretty amazing summer for me to witness this fantastic transformation. I watched these 2 become a solid team. They worked through issues, learned new things, taught each other some important lessons in trust and patience, both in themselves and each other, and they truly became grace under pressure. And once again, it was another example of how these dogs have helped us beyond the obvious (yet no less extraordinary) blood sugar alert.
Along the way, I have also learned a lot. A year ago, the thought of being out with Raven in a place that has hundreds of dogs of all shapes and colors really frightened me. But through all of our hard work, a lot of help along the way, some experience and some confidence, a lot of trust, patience, and love, I have become a better handler. More knowledgeable. Quicker to pick up on warning signs. And our training and work has created a better dog in Raven. We still have work to do. But compared to where we were this time last year? I am amazed.
I have watched Stella grow into a new role for her. Instead of being timid and shy, when at rally with the dogs, she has become more open and sharing. She has accepted a leadership role, often showing the newer children things like how to hold the leash or perform a command. She loves rally. She loves to be with her dogs, with her friends, with “her people”.
As a parent, I know that many of these things are passed down to her from us. But I also know that we get a BIG helping hand from these dogs. And for that, I will be forever thankful to Crystal and Johanna and the amazing crew that makes up Canine Hope. Thank you all for bringing us these amazing animals, trusting us with them, and showing us just how special they are.”
That was what my speech should have sounded like… 😉