Our family has spent 2 years now with a service dog. I’ve seen a lot, screwed up a lot, and learned a lot over those 2 years. (Major became ours on 10/1/11, there will be a post about that on that date). There are a tremendous amount of things that I had no clue about when we started this journey, so I would like to share some things you may not have thought of either.
We started down this road for several reasons. First, we were looking for any tool that would help to manage my daughter’s diabetes. She is young and active, and can’t feel her highs or lows. This creates issues when you are out and about, having a great time at a park or on the back of a horse, and she has no idea she is crashing until it becomes dangerous. CGM’s (constant glucose monitors) don’t help, as they are about 30 minutes behind real time. We heard about these amazing dogs that could alert to those fast drops and spikes and we were intrigued.
We love dogs. My wife works for Adopt-A-Pet.com and I volunteer for United Hope for Animals photographing homeless dogs at our local shelter. We have always had rescues, and at the time, we had a senior Rottweiler, a senior Terrier, and a maturing Great Dane. How much more work could one more dog be?
Now here’s where things get tricky. We contacted Canine Hope, filled out the application, did a home check, went to some events, and we were approved. We even requested (if possible) a rescue to be trained. You know the rest already, and we got Major.
It was probably only 3 days after we brought him home that I had to make the first phone call to Crystal, telling her I broke him, he stopped working. And she explained to me AGAIN, that I needed to work and train with Major everyday. EVERYDAY. For the rest of his life. And not just a walk around the block.
So, my first piece of advice to you is this. Know that when you get your service dog, assuming you get a “finished” dog, if you expect him to keep working, you need to work with him daily. We still do sit, stay, heel, down, etc. Everyday. We do scent training, we go to rally classes, we go to training sessions with our group, we constantly look for new scenarios that we can work through. It never ends. But that’s the beauty of it. Those sessions help build a bond, and they keep the dog busy and entertained. And if it doesn’t get done, you just paid WAY to much money for a Labrador (or whatever breed you may happen to get). And you have a dog looking to get into trouble from boredom.
As for the pets? Well, let me let you in on another secret. That created more work for us. We couldn’t let the “pet” dogs mingle with the “working” dog. The working dog requires constant supervision to help him stay focused. When the working dog gets to play, it is still a very structured type of play, play with a purpose to it. There is no throwing them all out in the backyard and letting them back in 2 hours later. The working dog needs structure, needs to be on place, needs to be focused. So here is something else you should consider. Even when you are sitting on your couch watching TV, one eye stays on the service dog. The dog is on a place (an area/mat/cot where the dog will down stay). Not roaming the halls or out in the yard sniffing daisies.
These dogs require some kind of attention constantly. Constantly. Constantly.
As a service dog, you get to bring them with you everywhere. How fun does that sound? They come to the grocery store, restaurants, Disneyland, school, work. Here is the next piece of advice. Diabetes is what we refer to as an “invisible” disease. What that means is that no one can tell just by looking at you that you have it. There is no wheelchair, no white cane, no oxygen tank, no oxygen tank or chemo created bald head. Sure, there may be a pump, and you still need to check your blood sugar, but for the most part, you can get in and out of places and no one will ever know you might have any disease. But walking a service dog through a Target? You might as well strap on a huge neon sign that says “look at me” while playing the bagpipes as bubbles are blown out your.. well, you get the idea. So if you or your child are shy, or are uncomfortable as the center of attention, this may not be an ideal situation for you.
And while you are out in public with your dog, you will be finely tuned in to all that people say around you. Snide remarks, rude questions, stares, pointing fingers and people constantly trying to pet your dog will be the highlight of every trip out. It will require a much tougher skin then perhaps you would think. The quick trip to the market won’t be quick anymore. You will be stopped constantly with questions about what they do, or how long they are in training, or “I wish I could bring my dog”. It’s tough to filter out.
The amount of stuff we carry as parents of a type 1 borders on ridiculous. Backpacks full of meters, Gatorade, snacks, spare infusion sets, test strips and supplies, insulin, and on and on. Now, to travel with a dog, there is a second backpack which has a place blanket, water bowl, water, shoes, treats and treat bag, a reward toy, ball, etc. All these things are just as important.
These dogs also require more grooming than the prettiest poodle you’ve ever seen. If you will be taking your dog out, you don’t want to take a dirty, stinky dog into a restaurant. You don’t want to take a flea infested dog into a school or your office. That dog needs to be clean! And if it’s a lab, that’s a tall task. They are like Pigpen. Just let them out for a second and they find dirt, mud, something to roll in, an algae infested pond, it doesn’t take long.
And a funny thing happens when you get involved in the service dog world. When you start following people on Facebook with dogs, who are bragging about how their dog caught this low, and how their dog can get a juice box out of the fridge, and how amazing their dog is, how their dog alerted from 6 miles away while little Billy is in school, and your sitting there staring at a meter that says 238, and you just want to know why your dog missed that? It takes time to realize that these teams have been together a long time. They have experience, they have put in the work. They also only talk about the good. They don’t share how many times their dog missed the 238. Don’t get resentful. Use it as inspiration. Work towards being an amazing team. But also know that they are missing stuff too, you just don’t hear about it.
Add to all of this dog hair EVERYWHERE, more vet care, expensive dog food, training sessions, gear like harnesses, shoes, leashes, crates, cots etc, and these dogs are expensive to maintain.
So why? If they are so much work, why have one at all? Why would anyone want to do this?
Because one day, you’re going to let your guard down. You won’t check your daughter because it is an hour after dinner, so you know of course she’s high. And your dog will alert to you, and you will even consider not checking her, because you know. But you do anyway to verify the dog is correct, and you’ll notice that she’s low, and dropping fast. And you will get a head start on keeping her BS up as she starts to vomit 45 minutes later, and you will be able to make it to the ER before something disastrous happens 2 hours later, thanks to your dog.
Because one night you will sleep through your alarm, and turn off the snooze. And your dog will wake you up by jumping on the bed and sticking a cold nose in your side, and you will get to her with a BS of 52 instead of 2 hours later at 22.
Because after a long day at SeaWorld, you will be driving the long drive home. Both kids asleep in the back seat, and your dog will tell you to check, and your child will be asleep, 2 hours from home. And you will think that you checked her before you left, and she was 135, and she’s so cute sleeping there, and this is every parents dream to drive with them asleep, and holy crap she’s 46!
And because not a day or 2 after that dog comes into your home, you realize that the dog provides SO much more than just an extra tool for your diabetes management. That dog becomes SO much more important than the meter or pump to your child. That dog provides comfort, warmth, friendship, companionship, love, a soft place to lay a weary head. A running buddy and fitness friend. The dog doesn’t judge you. You can tell it your secrets.
So, my advice to you is to think hard before you decide to get a service dog. Know that this won’t be easy. Know that regardless of how much you research, it will be 3x harder. Is your life ready for one? Is your home ready for one? Is your family ready for one? Do you have the time and commitment to make this work? Because it is A LOT of work, and takes up more time than you think. With that hard work, the dog can become a valuable resource in diabetes management, and a beloved member of the family. Without it? The dog can become a very expensive elephant in the room, causing feelings of anxiety and resentment, which isn’t fair to you OR the dog. You could potentially be taking a great working dog from someone who IS willing to put in the work, the time, the effort, and make an amazing team.