Training a service dog is hard work, a very long process, and often times not very fun. There are so many variables from start to finish, that this is by no means an automated, assembly line kind of process. If and when a dog makes it to Service Dog (referred to as SD from here on out) status, it is almost magical! With that thought in mind, here are a few things you may not hear from your DAD organization, but if they are responsible and truly care, they should tell you. Keep in mind while a lot of this info is specific to diabetic alert dogs, it can be applied to other types of SD’s too. 1. Not every dog can become a service dog. Not every puppy is born with the temperament, drive, or ability to become one. If your organization breeds their own puppies, don’t believe them if they tell you that they have a 100% success rate for turning them into service dogs, let alone DAD’s. Some of them may be better suited for some other work, requiring a career change, such as search and rescue, drug detection, hunting partners, or they may be best suited as pets. No amount of training can change that, and it is no one’s fault. The greatest strengths of the DAD, sensitivity, energy, focus and high drive, can make them inherently challenging to handle in public, and also poorly suited towards other types of SD work. Without the right balance they won’t be successful.
2. If the organization you are using has a self training program, while that may be the least expensive, it carries the greatest risk. There are no guarantees that the 12 week old puppy you bring home today will be an amazing service dog 2 years from now. There are so many variables, scenarios, events, etc that can happen to change that path. Even with a solid support base, training plan, weekly check ups, etc, there is still no promise of a SD. And if your organization sends EVERYONE home with a 12 week old puppy, by very leery. You should make sure the organization has some kind of plan in place if the puppy you are given isn’t SD material. If there is some kind of genetic/health issue, you need to have some assurance that you aren’t out thousands of dollars. Now, that is not to say that the organization is responsible if you happen to be careless or reckless, you just want to make sure you have some protection.
3. Training is forever. The training doesn’t stop the day you bring home your SD. It will continue for the life of your dog. Obedience work, scent work, acclimation’s to your household and lifestyle that will need to be learned, etc. There will be changes in your life. New home (maybe with a pool!), new school, every year there is a new classroom for a child, a new car, a new job, last year it was soccer, this year it is tennis. All of these things will come with a learning curve and require training to become solid. And in general, the dog will always need some basic obedience work and exercise daily to remain sharp and focused. If the training stops, the working stops. This dog will require constant maintenance for the whole working life of the dog.
4. Scent based SD’s miss alerts. They are not 100 percent accurate, no one is. They miss for all kinds of reasons. Chasing around a child at the amusement park for 14 hours can mean that when you get home, the dog is too tired to work. There are a million different reasons for a missed alert. They will also have strengths and weaknesses in certain scenarios. Some are fantastic in public, some are great at night, some won’t ever alert in a car, and some will have a window of time everyday when they need to sleep and turn off for awhile. See here for more info: Sometimes They Miss
5. Your diabetes management needs to be strong already, and you should be wanting to take that to the next level. These dogs are picking up on “out of normal” ranges, and often times they do so before your meter or CGM will. If you run in the high 2-300’s consistently, that becomes normal, and the dog can not provide you with the help you want. These dogs are NOT a cure all or replacement for anything you already do, at best they should be treated as “back up, redundant devices” and a new, additional tool. Things like checking blood sugar often, setting alarms for overnight checks, and the like do NOT go away with a DAD in the house, in fact, it is the opposite. You will be doing MORE checking, spending MORE time on management than you ever did before. You don’t get the dog because you want things to be easier, or because you want to do less work.
6. Working with the dog is hard. Traveling with the dog is hard. There is more effort, planning, and stuff to pack that is involved in even a “quick” run to the grocery store (and there are NO MORE quick runs to the store). Between all the diabetic supplies you now carry, you must add treats, bowls, leashes, water, poop bags, a place blanket, etc. And along with all of that, you will constantly be stopped everywhere you go. At best, people will be inquisitive and eager and interested with positive questions, at worst, they will be rude and demeaning to you, and in front of children even. Constantly having to keep one eye on the dog to make sure no one is touching them, or trips over them. And with a service dog, the element of having an “invisible” disease is removed. The SD is like holding a large neon sign up with an arrow pointing down saying “LOOK AT ME”. If you or your child is the shy type, and not fond of attention, both good and bad, this could spell disaster. Everywhere you go, there will be eyes on you. You will constantly be exposed to things said under peoples breath. Being stopped for questions after a day of stressful work or school, when all you really want to do is get home gets old. Since there is no “obvious” ailment, the questions of training, faking, or exaggerating takes a very thick skin to handle consistently.
7. We are not dog trainers. As such, it doesn’t take us very long to “break” a dog by not paying attention to, or ignoring things the animal is telling us. The dog is providing us with information constantly, whether it is as simple as I need to go outside and use the restroom, I need exercise, there is a stranger outside, all the way to providing us with a rock solid alert for a low blood sugar issue. And along the way there are hundreds of data points, things like pre-alert behaviors, and even actual alerts that can be very subtle. If we miss them, ignore them, or even worse, reward the wrong behavior or treat at the wrong time, the dog can become confused or we can wind up reinforcing an unwanted behavior.
8. Dogs are not cookie cutter duplicates of each other. There is no mold. No one training method, high value reward, treat, type of food, or long laundry list of other things is right for each dog. These animals are individuals, with their own personalities and strengths. A good trainer will be able to recognize what the proper method will be with each dog. On that same note, not each dog will be a good fit for each family. Even a successful, working DAD may not be able to work with a new, different person. A responsible organization will take great care in matching the dog with the person. The personality of the dog must also fit the personality of the diabetic. A 15 year old high school soccer player will require a much different dog than a retired 70 year old. The fit has to be right, and that needs to be a priority. It is ultimately more important to make a great team than it is to make a sale. And great teams speak volumes for the organization. As such, this makes it very tough to do an out of state placement, or a transaction handled over the phone or through emails. Both parties need to be present and involved for the best chance of long term success. A good friend of mine, Laurie Schwartz, who had a big hand in the drafting of this post, has a great analogy: “Dating is about learning all about a potential long term commitment. Good people can date and not be right for each other. Breaking up with a good person who is not a good fit causes hurt feelings but is ultimately the best for all involved, and no reflection on either party. The organization should have clear standards for “breaking up” with a client and also a dog in-training. If success is the goal not every client or every dog match can or will be successful”
9. The successful DAD will have a clear, unmistakeable alert. Whether that is grabbing a bringsel, using a paw swipe, bowing, or spinning in 3 circles to the left then standing up on his hind legs and yelling “hey, go check the kid!”, there will be a clear alert. When in training, the dog may have some pre-alert behaviors, or a natural proclivity for a particular type of alert. The good trainer will be able to enhance these, draw them out, reward them properly, and shape them. A bite, a yawn, scratching at a 5 year old, or defecating in the living room are not acceptable alerting behaviors. And remember, just because the dog can alert at home, doesn’t mean the dog will alert out in public. Those things take training.
10. A good understanding of diabetes and insulin needs to be in place. You must be knowledgeable in things like insulin on board and how it is currently relating to food that has been consumed, so that when a dog is alerting, you can determine a proper course of action. Is it a good, viable alert? Is it something that needs to be ignored? Does the diabetic require an action, or is everything working just like it is supposed to? Again, rewarding at an inappropriate time can cause more problems that will be hard to train out. The dog trainer must also be a diabetic expert to even begin to understand the process of what these dogs need to do, when they need to do it, and they must be honest with themselves, the dog, and the diabetic. If a dog alerts 1 hour after a lunch of 75 carbs, with a BS of 140 and 3 units of IOB, the person must be honest. The answer isn’t “Oh my gosh, 3 units of insulin could drop my bs 300 points, I could have died!”. It is more likely that the insulin is working exactly as it should be, and the dog most likely should be ignored for now. And if that same person eventually drops low 4 hours later, that isn’t a great heads up. That would be a missed alert entirely.
11. These dogs do not relieve you of your responsibility to constantly check yourself or your child. If your hope is to get a dog so you can sleep through the night, you are in for a rude awakening. If you have a solid, night alerting dog, the work to train that in will require countless sleepless nights. And if that dog truly is a solid night alerter, you will be up more during the night than ever before, or else that solid night alerter will also start sleeping through the night. These dogs are redundant back up systems. They are there to hopefully alert to you in case you sleep through an alarm, or an infusion set comes out, a battery in a pump dies. They are there to cover you in extraordinary circumstances. They are also there to provide you with good data to help fine tune your management, tweak basal rates, make small, minute adjustments throughout the day to better manage blood sugars. But you NEED to be involved. Probably more so than you are right now.
12. Alerting behaviors for highs and lows need to be understood. A low alert is the gold standard. That is the alert that requires immediate attention. It needs to be fixed right away, and in most cases, is fixed fairly rapidly. Most lows can be fixed with a couple of glucose tabs or a sip of Gatorade, and 15 minutes later we are back to normal. The dog gets rewarded heavily for the low alert. But highs? Highs are different. Highs can take time to fix. Highs are persistent. During a battle with a cold, highs can last hours if not days. And highs tend to really agitate the sensitive DAD. You need to create a good plan to help assist the dog during periods of prolonged highs. And as mentioned before, if the diabetic management is poor, and highs are normal operating procedure, you can very quickly ruin the dog.
Thank you all for hanging in there this long. The goal, as always, is to create a more knowledgeable consumer in an effort to better your chances at becoming a successful DAD team. If you are currently setting out on your journey to get a service dog, I hope this gives you some things to look for, questions to ask, red flags to avoid. If you are currently “dating” a service dog organization, and you feel something isn’t right, speak up. Share your concerns, and have them addressed. This is a long, expensive, important process. Be cautious. Be educated. Advocate for yourself or your child. The next 10-12 years of your life can be wonderful with an amazing service dog, or full of resentment with a very expensive pet. And I would like to give a HUGE thank you to Laurie Schwartz for helping me flesh out this post. Her family and her amazing DAD’s have always been a huge inspiration to me. You can see them here: Willow Wonka And Moxie Soda Pup