Suzie is now 8 months old and only has one month left of training before being placed in a permanent home with a diabetic. I have not yet found the perfect placement family for her so she is still available and we’re still accepting applications.
Over the last month Suzie has matured quite a bit. She’s still the exuberant pup she's always been, but she has calmed down a little, been fantastic in public, and improved with her polite alerts. This month I really started taking her everywhere I went, whether it was to a friend’s house or to get something from the store. About a week ago my friends and I went to see the movie “Max” and Suzie came with. This was her first trip to the theater and unfortunately the theater was packed. We found seats, but I had originally hoped to start her off with a movie with a very small audience just in case anything happened. But, Suzie had been doing well with other public access trips, so I decided to trust her and her previous training. She was an angel. There were loud noises and barking dogs in the movie, but she stayed in a down at my feet quietly. About 5 minutes into the movie I realized I should probably not have had her first movie be a dog movie with dog sounds, but oh well. The one time she did stir and perk up with interest was during a dog fight scene - she heard growling and snarling and was confused as to where it was coming from. She didn’t get up from her down position, so in response I just started petting her belly so she rolled onto her side and relaxed. Then she was just fine after that. I was thrilled with how well she did. Before the movie we had gone to a restaurant, and after the movie we went to a frozen yogurt shop. It was a 5 1/2 hour trip and was great practice for her to be out working for long periods of time now that she is maturing and able to handle it.
June 23 - July 1 I went to Mexico with my grandmother to visit family, so Suzie stayed home with my parents. For some reason, my mom kept going low over this week, so Suzie received lots of live low practice even though I wasn’t there. When I came home, Suzie was ecstatic - whining, jumping, climbing in my lap, whining some more, wiggling all over, etc. It was great to see her too and everything, but the next day she gave 3 or 4 false alerts. My mom kept telling me that she had done great when I was gone, only giving 1 or 2 false alerts the whole week, so she didn’t understand. Then fast forward about a week later to when I brought home a Comfort® puppy to train for a few days. Suzie loves puppies as thinks they are her own personal toy, so she was excited. The day that this pup came home, Suzie gave a few false alerts as well. What I think I’ve discovered is that because she is still a pup and immature on some levels, when something new or different happens she is excited and has somehow associated that to alerting, perhaps because she’s so excited when she alerts. I think as she grows up she will mature out of this, but I found it very interesting how she has those things linked together in her mind. And I’ve found to fix this, she just needs a scent swatch session. Practicing with a scent swatch seems to “recalibrate” her and she will be almost spot on after that. I think what this means is that she will need daily or every other day scent swatch practice to keep her focused on her job and “on her game”.
We’ve been working on highs this month and she’s doing great. DADs usually alert automatically to highs once they learn lows and become in tune to blood sugars, so no swatches are needed. But because I’m not diabetic I don’t go above 180, so I have to use swatches to practice. I have swatches and she immediately alerted to one when I opened it. Now it’s just a matter of teaching her the exact numbers to alert to and which ones not to.
A few days ago Suzie alerted me, I checked, and I was 172. I am never that high. The highest I’ve been that I’ve known about was in the 140s. This was the first live high she alerted to and although I’d like her to alert to 180 and above, I rewarded her in order to keep her confidence up and encourage her to alert to highs, rather than shut her down. Another occasion where she surprised us was alerting to my mom. She alerted and my mom checked, she was 94. Suzie alerted again and again and again, so she finally rechecked 25 minutes later and she was 168. For us, that was a very fast rise in blood sugar. She was given a lower value reward because mom's bg wasn’t out of range, but Suzie did do well for alerting to a fast change. I think when placed in a diabetic home, she could be very valuable because she is so driven that she is often checking the air for scents of low/high bg as well as the trends.
Suzie has really improved this month on her alert chain. She’s getting much better at pulling the bringsel, then continuing to hold it while pawing politely. Her pawing isn’t always polite, but every day it’s getting better and less like the crazy jumping bean she used to be! She’s still just as excited about her job, she’s just learning to control her enthusiasm in order to get the reward. Below is how a typical alert goes:
1. Suzie pulls a bringsel from a doorknob or belt loop
2. Suzie brings bringsel to me or whoever is out of range and paws
3. I (or whoever she alerted to) take the bringsel from her mouth
4. I (or whoever she alerted to) say “Let’s check!”
5. We go check blood sugar
Then if Suzie is correct:
6. I say “Yes! Good low/high Suzie!”
7. I run to the fridge and give her a piece of yummy meat or cheese
8. I either sit on the ground and give her a 3-4 minute scratch/love session, or we run back to my room and get a high value squeaky toy from the cabinet throw it for her, sometimes play tug with it.
If Suzie was incorrect
6. I say “We’ll watch”
7. I wait 5-10 minutes and recheck
8. Continue rechecking every 5 to 10 minutes for about 30 minutes, ignoring Suzie unless she keeps alerting in which case I continue to say “We’ll watch”.
Sometimes in step 2 she will come to me and paw even though it’s someone else who she thinks is out of range, in that case I’ll ask ‘Who is it? Show me.” and ask her to paw the person she thinks is out of range. We are still working on this part as it’s a difficult concept for her, but she’s getting better. And practically, this won’t be used that often since usually it will be the diabetic who is out of range, unless there are multiple diabetics in the home.
In order to help with the alert chain training, I created a training board. I built it today, so Suzie doesn’t know it yet, but hopefully I’ll be able to get her working on it and get some good videos. Basically it’s four pipes that can each hold a tin with a different scent in it. Suzie will smell the scents and when she finds the one with an out of range blood sugar, she will go through the alert chain - pulling the bringsel, pawing me, then pawing the pipe with the scent. I’m hoping this training may help clarify to Suzie exactly what she should be doing, without the distractions of people and live blood sugar fluctuations.
When I was in Lowes today with Suzie, buying the items for the scent board, I put her in a down stay so I could look at the plumbing pieces better. But after a few minutes she got up and walked in a circle around me. I asked her what she thought she was doing, but as I was asking her this (yes, I do talk to my dogs in public - I have no shame :) ) she sat down, and pawed me. I then realized that I, being stupid, had forgotten to put a bringsel on my beltloop so the circling was her looking for the bringsel, then she decided to just paw me to alert. I checked and was 77. I was so proud of her! We immediately ran out to the car and she got a full jar of baby food and lots of loving! I felt bad for forgetting the bringsel, but was so happy that she disobeyed the down stay because she smelled I was low, then she problem solved and alerted me with a paw, despite the fact she couldn’t find a bringsel. This shows that she is thinking through problems and solving them on her own. I was pretty proud!
Although Suzie will still need continued training until she is fully mature, I believe she has a great head start and will really be an asset to someone who wants another tool in their “diabetic tool belt”.
So, Suzie’s doing very well and I’m dreading the day she leaves. It is by far my least favorite part of this job, it took me months to be able to watch the slideshow of Sadie without bawling my eyes out. But for now, I’m going to focus on the fact that my exuberant little girl is still here and that we need to work on fetching meters and juices, and alerting politely!
7 to 8 Months
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I'm Libby Rockaway, and this blog is to document my experiences training Diabetic Alert Dogs. Over the years I have succeeded, failed, tweaked, and morphed my DAD training - this blog follows my journey through it all!