1661616_814261655268735_7488107394780660463_nWe spend a lot of time in the car. Always on the run somewhere, and in Los Angeles, prone to extended periods of being stuck in traffic. While we are in the front seat, the kids aren’t technically far away, but I can’t tell what my daughter’s blood sugar is doing easily or safely while I am driving and she is in the back seat listening to her iPod, playing with her brother, or sleeping. Raven, one of our diabetic alert dogs (a DAD for short), does alert in the car. But we noticed recently that it was noticeably less often, so we decided to go back to the drawing board and work on fine tuning it a bit. This post gives you some background on where we started, some things we tried (that did or didn’t work), and where we are now.

475629_543428862352017_1237138805_oWe are a family of four, with 2 DAD’s, and when we go out for a day, we carry a lot of gear. Diabetic supplies, dog gear, photography equipment, and often times our own food. We have a small SUV that we normally take, and that is my wife’s  daily driver. I have a small 4 door sedan that I drive, and that I often use if it’s just the kids and I or 1 kid and a dog.

Major doesn’t alert in the car. Due to his past history, he shuts down in the car. So we always let him lay down in the back of the SUV and sleep. He never disturbs anything, and is a very good passenger. Raven does alert, and she will alert from the rear of the SUV.

photo3Her alert from the rear of the SUV is to hang her head over Stella’s seat and nudge her with her nose. This works fine, if I notice it and/or Stella is awake to let us know she is alerting. But there are times that this isn’t so noticeable. Like at night, black dog in the dark, and with 2 kids sleeping in the backseat. We would also have an issue if the kids were eating something in the back seat. Is she alerting? Or does she smell french fries? (yes she can eat that). Sometimes it was hard to differentiate between an alert and curiosity. We tried hanging a bringsel on the back seat, but if she alerts and pulls the bringsel off, then I need to pull over, stop the car, and re-hang the bringsel. Not very conducive to going places in a hurry.

photo 8 We also have the issue of riding in my car. In the car, our dogs have to ride in the back seat. Different vehicle, different seating arrangement, different behaviors. So I wanted something that was going to be transferable. A way to work the alert behavior chain that was going to be, if not exactly the same, similar enough no matter what vehicle we were in. That lead us to at least realize whatever it is going to be, it needs to be from the back seat. My car doesn’t have a section behind the seat for them like the SUV does. So our first step was bringing Raven into the back seat. photoHaving her on the seat with Stella works somewhat. We can easily recreate the scenario in both of our vehicles. But what we occasionally see is them getting comfy together. And sometimes, when they are comfy, alerts might get missed.

1661616_814261655268735_7488107394780660463_nBut I felt like I was on the right track. I felt like with a tweak or 2, I could really make this work. So I drove Raven around for awhile, over the course of a couple of weeks, and would put her in different spots. In my mind, I was envisioning her being able to alert to me subtly, at 11;30 at night, driving down the freeway, with 2 sleeping kids in the back, without disturbing them. I would use a low scent sample while I was driving, and put her on the seat, behind me, on the passenger side, in various spots. Sometimes Stella would be with me, and if she was high, we would work that too. I started to see progress in consistency, but I needed to fine tune the alert behavior. I didn’t want to fool around with a bringsel in the car, and I didn’t want her to alert to the kids in back. I wanted her to get the front seat passengers attention.

Raven alerting in the car

Raven alerting in the car

As I was driving around with the scent in my card, when I noticed Raven start to “get it” I would put a treat on my shoulder. I wanted to make sure she would move around enough and displace herself enough that it would be noticeable, and ultimately end with a nose nudge or contact with me of some kind. Once I got that, we started working on location in the car. With 2 kids, all their stuff, and 2 dogs, keeping her on the seat would be tight. We decided that the best place is on the floor in front of Dash. This keeps Ravens head and nose pointed towards Stella (ultimately not that big a deal in an enclosed vehicle for scent, but never hurts), and places her head between the arm rest of the front seat. It looks like this from the drivers seat:

photo 7And now what happens is pretty awesome. We get a 2 stage alert. The first stage is her head rises up as she catches the scent, she starts to stir, and her head goes on the arm rest.

photo 4Stage 2 leads to her standing up and nudging me in the shoulder.

photo 6The nice thing about this is we can set this up in the exact same way in every car we ride in. We try to adhere to the KISS philosophy, Keep It Simple Stupid. The easier and less complicated we make it, the more likely we are to be successful. And with this, we have been able to have success, repeatability and accuracy. We have removed any road blocks for Raven to be able to get to the people she needs to notify about a blood sugar issue. Now, if only I could go sleep in the back seat while someone else drove… 😉

Hope this kind of info helps. If you have any questions, let me know.

Team Blackdogsrule



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  1. Hey, I just shared and tweeted. This is so interesting. I wondered if routines are ever changed or is it only when something doesn’t work.

    • Our lifestyle is pretty fluid there really isn’t any routine, especially with kids and diabetes. We are constantly looking for ways to remove barriers, tighten up alerts, make things easier and such. Today Stella does horseback riding, but perhaps next year she’ll play soccer at which point more changes will occur so we’re always figuring new things out, and preventing stagnation. We’ve also learned that over time, routine causes complacency. We eat dinner and breakfast at the same time every day. These dogs are very smart, and if allowed, they will work on auto pilot. Eat every day at 5:30, alert everyday at 6:30 to a high, get a treat. So we are constantly mixing things up

  2. Very nice! What do you use to transport the scent sample in the car? And do you make sure that Raven isn’t aware of it until she smells it?

    • Frank Wisneski

      Kathy, we use tubes to both store and transport in. When i am working in the car, I normally just open the tube and set it in the center console, or somewhere that Raven can’t see it. I never cue the scent, I wait until she finds it, and she lets me know. At that point, the only behavior I shaped was her alert to my shoulder. Here is a link to the tubes we use http://astore.amazon.com/franwisephot-20/detail/B005Z4R9HI

      • Thanks, and do you prefer these tubes to test strip containers?

        • Frank Wisneski

          Yes, with the screw top lids that seal well, making them easy to freeze and defrost without damaging the sample, and there is no scent associated with them. The test strip containers have a definite odor associated with them (even I can smell it when I open it), and after awhile the dogs get familiar with that scent as the strip container is opened at every test, and can possibly be cued by that scent

      • Samantha Merryman

        Do you have to sterilize them before you use them? Also, when you freeze them, do you place them inside a freezer bag?

        • Frank Wisneski

          No, the tubes are sanitized, and I double ziploc freezer bag them. The tubes go in a freezer bag ziploc, then that ziploc is put in another freezer bag ziploc

  3. We are always fine tuning Bear’s training. Great post!

  4. Hi and thanks for the post! You mentioned missing an alert if they are both together in the back seat and getting too comfortable. I wonder if this also applies to night alerts : my DAD sleeps on my bed and night alerts have all but stopped. I’m wondering if my DAD needs to be on the floor next to my bed ??
    He’s an awesome alerter during the day: he does sleep like a rock though and misses alerts when sleeping
    Thanks – Jeri

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