When we talk about service dogs and training, we often talk about the need for training to continue forever. People assume service dogs are fully trained, and don’t need anymore. Untrue. Just like you and I, the dogs are pretty much “use it or lose it” . Whether it is for a newly learned behavior or scenario, or continuing training sessions/brush up sessions, something is happening everyday. Here is a perfect case in point, Night Alerting
In the Diabetic Alert Dog world, night alerting is the “holy grail”. To have a dog that will smell the scent, wake up, and then wake up either the diabetic, or a parent, is a pretty amazing thing, and not easy to achieve. There are many out there with amazing alert dogs that work in every other situation, but just don’t do night times (we have a dog just like that)
The main reason we have Raven is because of her night alerting skills. But even as a skilled night alerter, when we brought her into our new situation, it took us almost a month before we got our first night time alert. And that is because dogs are situational. Prior to her coming to us, she trained with an adult diabetic, sleeping in her bed, and waking her up. But we have a child who doesn’t want to be bothered, and gets irritated at being woken up. So in our scenario, the dog needs to wake a parent up. Different scenario, different behavior, different training. The dog was coming from “in the bed with the diabetic and the scent” to “in another room away from the scent, and waking up the non diabetic”.
We worked very closely with Crystal and Tracy from Canine Hope (Raven’s trainers) and did a lot of problem solving and trial and error, and we got it to work, and work well. But things evolve and change over time, and dogs are really smart. So here is where a piece of the “on-going” training part comes in.
Even though we have a dog that alerts us at night, we still check our daughter 3 times a night. Dogs aren’t robots, and the DOG IS THERE AS A BACK-UP TO US, WE ARE NOT A BACK-UP TO THE DOG. And we have learned a few things along the way. First, Raven sleeps heaviest from 11-1am every night, and as such, doesn’t alert between those hours. So we set an alarm for midnight and always check our daughter. Raven’s internal clock wakes her up, and most often if there is an alertable event, her first alert of the night is between 1:10 and 1:20 am.
Secondly, if we have a busy day, and the dogs are tired when we come home, we know there may not be any alerts that night. Think a trip to Disneyland, or a day of retrieving at the lake.
Third, is the dog feeling okay, or is the dog sick?
We have learned that in those scenarios, we need to be even more vigilant. But what about the intelligence of the dog?
We have learned that these dogs can and will anticipate alarms. So if you are waking up to an alarm every night at 1:30, and get out of bed, the dog will start to wake you up at 1:30, and may create what is like a “false alert”. So to keep the dogs honest, we rotate our alarms on a nightly basis, 1:30 tonight, 1:45 tomorrow night, 2:10 the next night, and then back again.
We had an issue last week that required some problem solving. Raven got a cut on her chest, was on antibiotics, and had to wear a cone so she wouldn’t lick it. She wasn’t sleeping comfortably, and we didn’t get any alerts for 2 nights. On the third night, we knew we needed to change something to jump start it again. We moved her bed over to my side (she normally sleeps on my wife’s side of the bed), and at 1:18 that night, she woke me up to a BS event of 186. In an effort to keep that going, we also changed the treat we give for night alerts, ramping it up with something new. 4 days later, she is back on my wife’s side, and is back to consistently alerting in the middle of the night.
Dogs, just like humans, can get into routines. So to avoid that, every now and again we toss in a little wrinkle. Never upsetting the apple cart too much, in this case, we moved the bed, but it was still her bed, still in our room.
We have continually tweaked things when we notice a complacency in the dogs, just to keep everything fresh and exciting. Sometimes it as simple as changing the type of reward or treat. Sometimes it involves moving a bed. But you will need to continually teach new and old behaviors in different scenarios, at different times, with different distractions for the rest of the dog’s life.
I promise pictures in the next post 😉