Let me preface all of this by saying that I am not a dog trainer or a breeder. I’m just a dad that decided that getting a service dog was important for our family. Since then, I have become more and more involved, met a lot of people, and learned a tremendous amount along the way. These are my thoughts on considerations that should be made on the journey towards aquiring a service dog. As always, take what I’ve made here, and salt it to taste. 🙂
Okay, so you’ve officially decided you want to pursue getting a Diabetic Alert Dog for yourself or your family. Now comes some big decisions. Many organizations offer different types/levels of dog. There are puppies for self training, started dogs, and finished dogs. I’m going to discuss these, and the responsibilities required of you for each type here. But first, let’s talk about several of the most common deciding factors families use to determine which type of dog to get.Availability, money, fear and desperation.
1. Availability: In general, puppies are often more readily available than started or finished dogs. However, “I want it and I want it now” should not be the basis for your decision, if so, you’re heading for disaster and a very expensive pet. The waiting list for started and finished dogs can be years. Be very leery of anyone that has a finished Diabetic Alert Dog readily available. And I know, it’s tough to go to the organization or breeder, meet the dogs, work with a dog, then see the adorably cute puppies and know that you could probably take one of them home pretty quickly, and for less money. (the price difference between a puppy and a finished dog is significant) If your kids came with you, the pressure is high to get the puppy. Something to also consider is that just because they have 6, 8, or 10 puppies, that doesn’t mean that 100% of them would make it all the way to “finished” DAD. As a matter of fact, dogs fall out all along the way for many issues like fear, too high or low drive, barking, all kinds of things, so there really is no guarantee that your puppy will have what it takes. However, if you work with a reputable organization/trainer, and they have a program established to help you train your dog with both group and private sessions, this can be a rewarding and successful route. More on that in a minute.
2. Money: Generally speaking, a puppy is the least expensive route. A started dog and a finished dog will be more expensive. But there are hidden costs. In order for your puppy to be successful, there will be sessions with trainers and obedience classes. There will be travel expenses. There will be costs associated with public access training, things like train trips, bus rides, outings to ball games or amusement parks, even possibly things like plane rides. There may be fees for competitions like Rally or Agility. Often times, the started/finished dogs will have experience in all those areas. All 3 levels of dog will have vet costs, insurance, food, gear etc. But with a puppy, some gear will have to be purchased multiple times as the puppy grows. Things like crates and service dog vests.
3. I will cover both fear and desperation together. As a parent of a type 1, I understand both of these. We are looking for anything, any way that we can help and protect our child. Fears from coma, DKA, dead in bed, hypoglycemic events, being away from home, and long term complications from high blood sugar are just a few we face. Every day. The list is long. We get desperate for help. We seek any little thing that might make diabetes easier, or safer, or more convenient. We don’t sleep. There are several service dog organizations that prey on those fears. That desperation. They use all the right words, say all the right things, perhaps scare you a little more, and then offer you the moon. A million promises that they can’t keep, and you don’t find out until it’s too late, your too invested, and you can’t see anyway out. It is up to us to be diligent. To do our research. To ask the right questions. To seek out current families with actual working service dogs from those organizations, not just the names the owner hands us. Go to a conference to meet families and trainers, see the dogs in action, and handle a dog yourself. A great place to start your search is here: Diabeticalertdog.com
Yes, there are many other factors that come into play when deciding what “level” of service dog to get that I haven’t covered here. But these tend to be the ones I hear over and over again. Now, I want to cover what should be expected of each level of dog, and the new handler’s responsibility at each level to help make a successful team. And understand, I am not suggesting any one of these is better than the other, just trying to help you understand what is required, and what the responsibility is at each level.
But first, I want to talk a little about diabetes management. Prior to considering getting a service dog, you need to make sure that you have a health plan in place. That you are practicing good diabetes management. I know that the reason you want or need a dog is to help you with that, but let’s be honest. If your diabetes management is non existent, you aren’t testing regularly, you aren’t keeping a food journal or a BG log, and you haven’t seen an Endo in a while, there is no way a dog will ever be successful in that scenario for long. Many organizations are going to require that you provide them with logs, and after the dog is placed, you will need to keep logs so the trainers can see when the dogs are alerting and when they are not. You will also need to test often, and when the dog starts to alert, you will need to test every time to verify the dog is working, and reward the dog appropriately. It is not fair to bring a DAD into an uncontrolled environment. They will eventually shut down.
Puppies! Look how cute they are! They are cuddly and funny and cute and soft and fuzzy and oh my gosh, puppies! But puppies are also a lot of work. And have a lot of growing to do. And a lot of responsibility on your part to make a successful DAD some day. But it can be done. You also need to consider where you are in your journey with diabetes. Do you spend 60 hours a week at the office, and then come home to a type 1 toddler? A puppy may be more responsibility than you’re ready to take on. Are you a stay at home parent, with a child in school 8 hours a day? A puppy may be great for you, as you have the time to dedicate to training. If you decide on getting a puppy, hopefully you have done your homework on the breeder/trainer. From a reputable organization, here is what you should expect in a puppy: It may have been scent imprinted (the jury is still out on how successful this is, Major and Raven were not), it has begun crate training, socialized, introduced to scent games, and had an intro to some basic obedience.
Here are some helpful tips that you should seek/expect from your trainer/organization: Hopefully they are local, and they provide group outings and training sessions for you to participate in. The organization should provide on-going training, evaluation, and support for you and your pup. Open communication. This to me is #1. I want to know that someone is available to answer my call, text, email, etc. That they will still be there tomorrow, after they cashed my check. I want someone that can help me trouble shoot problems and issues, or give me guidance for my specific needs.But wait, there’s more! You, as a service dog “self trainer” also have responsibilities. You must be willing to communicate with the trainers. To discuss training hurdles, problem areas, and concerns. A problem left unchecked at the puppy stage can turn into a serious issue later. And since you signed up for self training, you must be up to the task of training! Your puppy will need to learn all the basics, plus you will need to do house breaking, scent training, public access work, socialization, the list is long. You owe it to yourself, your child, your dog, and the organization. Again, if you have done all the leg work to find a great organization, they want to make sure you are successful. But they need to know what you are having trouble with. You need to attend the training sessions. They will occasionally need access to the dog for evaluation. They will provide support and experience to help you. But you need to ask. And you need to follow through when they provide you with a path. From puppy to service dog is a long road. 18-24 months for a diligent, responsible trainer is fairly common. As a matter of fact, an organization that provides “finished dogs” are often right around 2 years old.
Puppies just seem like a little too much responsibility for you? A started dog may be a better fit. However, there is still a lot of training, work and responsibility. When considering a started dog, here are some milestones you should expect to be met: Many hours of public access, with trips to grocery stores, restaurants, events with lots of people, etc. Basic scent work, with acknowledgement of scent, and a trained alert behavior of some sort. A basic understanding of their job. And obedience equivalent to AKC CGC.
Most started dogs are between 8 and 15 months when placed. These dogs still have a long way to go, but the basics are established. They should be house trained, they should be comfortable on leash, they should be well socialized, they should be fine in a crate. When you bring home your started dog, you will be expected to continue daily obedience training, building in structure to your dogs day utilizing “place” and crate training, establishing firm boundaries between your service dog and any pets in the home, utilizing outings for public access training, and participating in training sessions with the organization (assuming you are local. If not, your organization may be able to assist you in finding a local trainer). It should be expected of you to provide progress updates, and to communicate any issues that arise back to the trainer. You will be working this dog into your daily life. It will need to start acclimating itself to your routine. Do you ride the train to work everyday? Does your child ride the school bus? Are you spending time at soccer games or swim meets? All of those scenarios should now start to involve your dog, and as problems arise, a good, open dialog between you and the trainer become paramount to success.
Finally, we get to finished dogs. But here’s the thing. I personally hate the term “finished”. I think it conjures up an image of a dog that is completely ready to work, with no training left to do, just take him home and your done. And that is not the case at all. Finished dogs still require training and need to work, or they could very easily slip into the “very expensive pet” category. If you have read this blog for awhile, I hope you have an understanding of the amount of work we do just to maintain the level of performance we expect from our dogs. (this training/work thing keeps coming up. Do you sense a common theme?)
Here is what is generally considered a finished dog. The dog has well over 100 hours of public access work. They have a clear and reliable alert. They have a minimum of 1 month in a real time alerting situation (time spent with a real diabetic), with night time alerting success. The proven ability to alert in multiple locations with distractions. Solid place training. Obedience should be at a rally novice level or above, and with fetch and hold training which helps with alert behaviors and training other new behaviors.
As the handler of a finished dog, again, you will be required to communicate with the trainer/organization about progress (open communication is absolutely required for teams to be successful). This dog will immediately begin training to acclimate to your lifestyle. Hopefully at some point, you had a discussion with the organization about specific lifestyle needs, such as riding the subway to work, working in a coal mine, or playing high school sports, so the organization can start to integrate some specific training scenarios into your dogs daily routine. You will want to consider doing some type of activity like Rally to help focus, refine, and build a bond with the dog, and even though it’s training, the dog has fun. A finished dog is a huge responsibility, as this dog has hundreds and hundreds of hours of training time put into it. It survived all the milestones, and didn’t develop any of the issues that may have seen some of it’s siblings fail out or be repurposed. At this point the dog LOVES it’s job and is happiest when it has a job. You must keep this dog engaged, focused, and well trained, or again, you run the risk of having the worlds most expensive pet.
Now that you know what the different levels of service dog entail, here are a couple of things to help ensure success, and a few things to look out for.
As for success, communication is key. Both you and your trainer need to communicate often through this process. Evaluations should take place often. Issues and problems should be addressed early. Expectations need to be discussed and understood. If you are self training, the organization has put a lot of faith in to your ability to be responsible. These dogs can reach a point of no return, meaning they can get so far gone that there is no bringing them back. They will forever be a pet. And with that much money spent, it will probably be a very resentful experience. No fun for you or the dog. Please, please, please if you take away one thing today, let it be this: Talk to your trainer. They want you to be just as successful as you do. They don’t want to see you fail. But they can only help and fix what they know about, and you owe it to them and the dogs to do what is asked of you. Work with the dog. Take the obedience classes. Participate in organized functions. Practice good diabetic management.
Along the way, you will experience difficulties and scenarios that pose problems. These require working through them, not avoiding them. They are training opportunities that require follow through and communication with the trainer, not avoidance, or they can multiply, and quickly. I can’t tell you how many times I have called Crystal, my trainer at Canine Hope, and said: “HELP! I think I broke the dog!”, and every time, she has talked me off the ledge, and helped me through the issue.
Here are a few red flags to look out for. If you hear these things coming from a trainer or organization, run. Fast.
1. You will be able to sleep through the night
2. Our dogs are fully trained and finished at 8 months
3. There is no need to continue training once we deliver the dog
4. They tell you this is easy
5. Does the trainer freely offer advice and assistance, or are you forced into a closed group?
6. Can you talk to and spend time with other families with actual, working dogs?
You can find a lot more things like this at Diabeticalertdog.com
Do your research Do your homework. Know that this journey is a hard one, and that the work required, whichever way you choose, will be harder and more involved than you anticipated. But if you stick to it, and work closely with your trainer, communicating all along the way, and doing the work expected of you, it can be very rewarding. And this dog could save you or your child’s life some day.
Trust me. I know.