DADs, Moms, and Remote Sensing

It is difficult to capture the emotions of the workshop I recently attended for Diabetic Alert Dogs (DADs), it is just something you have experience.  To see and feel the love, the bonding, and connection between the mothers of these children afflicted with the silent looming disease of diabetes and their diabetic alert dogs is like witnessing a miracle. I’m not saying that there is more love for the child or dog in this relationship than others, we all love our dogs and children very much; it is the specialness of this triad that I am referring to. It is so special and so strong in fact that we are beginning to see some pretty remarkable things occurring as a result.

In the early 70’s a friend of mine was working towards her degree in Psychology. She owned a big black Labrador named Trooper whom she had trained to do some pretty neat tricks.  My friend got the idea for a study as part of her required university work, to look at the telepathic abilities between dogs and their owners.   Experiments were set up where an owner would give commands to the dog that was separated from his owner by a wall, while observers would watch and record what the dog did. For the most part there was no meaningful data to support that dogs had telepathic abilities.  Yet many owners report things like the dog getting excited a full 10 minutes or more before the car of their beloved owner even pulls into the neighborhood. They can’t hear it, they can’t smell it, no one has said anything, and it can be at different times of the day; how do they do it? Science might not yet be able to prove or even offer an explanation of how things in these anecdotal stories occurs, but I can tell you I saw some things first hand at the workshop that I am sure are real even if hard to believe.

DADs live and work round the clock to help their people monitor blood glucose levels. No one knows quite what it is they smell, but they are really good at it and regularly alert to changes long before the fancy glucose meters.  But they do something that no meter or any man made instrument can even come to close to comparing with; some of the DADs are capable of Remote Sensing.  I witnessed this phenomena first hand.  We were all sitting around a break out room at the conference. There were moms with their children’s DADs and then trainers like myself without dogs.  The children were about ½ mile away with adult chaperones splashing in the lake trying to stay cool from the blistering Mississippi heat.  There was a DAD lying on the floor between me and next to the mom of a diabetic child who was at the lake. During the presentation that was being given, I began to notice the dog  getting restless.  I watched as the dog got up, grabbed it’s training aid that was hanging from the mom’s belt which is an indication of an “alert”.   The mom quietly praised the dog and texted the adult watching the children at the lake to have them check her child’s blood glucose level.  In a few moments the mom got a text message back saying that the child’s level had in fact dropped and they were able to catch it in time.  The dog then lay back down. Things continued on as all was OK now with the child.  I just witnessed a miracle; a DAD alerting accurately on a child a ½ mile away. WOW. What do you say to something like that? I was so awe struck that it took me several minutes for the whole scene to sink in!

Rachel and Debby

Here I am with Rachel Thornton who hosted the workshop. She is the backbone of the DAD movement, one terrific mom and a super DAD trainer.

I have read many stories about owners who had deep bonds with their dogs and some of the incredible things they have done, but nothing compares to the bond the DAD shares with their diabetic child and the mother.  To develop that bond requires a dedication of time, love and effort which these moms and their children have demonstrated will bring out these yet to be understood but truly remarkable abilities of these extraordinary canines.

The Ultimate Blindfold Test

South Eastern Guide Dogs School, located on a well landscaped 23-acre campus nestled just off I-275 in rural Palmetto, Florida was the next stop on our itinerary. For this venture we met up with fellow Labrador breeder friends, Brent and Ardyn Brooks of Brooks Labradors(Texas) and Kathy Marr of Pikara Labradors (Virginia).  We were there to learn more about their program. The staff at SEGD was warm and friendly and gave an excellent tour of the campus and operations. I was most anxious for them to meet and evaluate Ruby and Harley. The girls by this point had met so many people they were well prepared for all the ohs and ahs, not to mention they had tons of practice on how to solicit tummy rubs and cuddling from people. Even the experienced staff here that sees loads of puppies could not resist these two.

We brought Gillie, our young Ranger son, with us for their training teams to evaluate. The school has never used chocolates before in any of their work or breedings and I was hoping they would overcome their bias against the color after they met Gillie. I handed over the leash to their trainer not knowing quite what was in store for my boy, but confident he would do his best. Gillie has the characteristic of always trying to understand what you want and then trying hard to please. While the team whisked Gillie away to other parts of the campus, our contingency was taken just inside the front gate, where the intersection of Independence Drive and Freedom Way lies. It is bordered by a series of pathways known as the Freedom Walk where several trainers with well schooled guide dogs were waiting for us. Everyone in our group got blindfolded and was given the chance to walk the streets of the campus with a dog leading the way. The trainers were right there to help us with commands and obstacles that had been set up all over the place for training purposes. It is quite an experience to not be able to see and be out on a sidewalk. There are bumps and things in the walk you never notice until you can’t see them. Our dogs were wonderful though and kept us out of harm’s way on the entire walk.

Being blindfolded you learn to trust the dog.

In the meantime somewhere on the other side of the campus Gillie was put in a harness and tested through many types of distractions and obstacles. The trainers eventually returned to our group with Gillie and had glowing reports of his success. They were ready to keep him! The report to the breeding staff was good enough that Gillie is now being considered for breeding with some of the SEGD dogs. This is great news and something to look forward to. All in all we had a most enjoyable morning, but with young pups waiting for us at home we felt we needed to get on the road as soon as possible. The dogs wanted to stay and play some more, almost as though they realized the trip home would be long. But true to their nature they never complained as they loaded up for the marathon drive back to Harpers Ferry.

Easy Riders

It’s a 1000+mile drive from our kennels to Orlando, Florida. By the end of the drive, we had two little girls who were road-hardened and savvy about truck stop “breaks.” These pups had no problem going on command in strange places, surrounded by roaring diesel truck sounds. Traveling with a pup might seem like an inconvenience to some, but we look at it as an unequaled training opportunity for our girls Ruby and Harley.

By the time we reached the Double Tree resort near Sea World, where the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP) annual conference was being held, the girls were ready for anything. And they got just about everything in the way of experiences, too—sliding doors, elevators, bellboys with rolling carts, cleaning ladies with carts, rolling suitcases. You name it, they saw it. All their basic obedience training was now paying off, as they knew where to be in order to avoid getting into trouble. They just listened to the commands and life was good, since they got treats and praise.

Ruby, you shouldn’t have done that.

One of their first experiences was in the hotel restaurant the day we arrived. Florida was considerably hotter than West Virginia, so the girls and their Uncle Gillie were panting a lot more than usual. Our waitress noticed the pups panting under our table and offered to bring a bowl of ice water for them. Harley politely drank a little and went back to her place to lie down. Ruby drank a little and then decided, in true Labrador fashion, that water is much better when you are in it. She tipped the bowl, getting the ceramic tile floor nice and wet with the cool water, then laid in it. I could hear the “ahhh, that’s better” sigh as she made a huge mess on the floor. I was glad we were outside!

Everywhere we went, the girls were a big hit. I think they knew they were ambassadors for the Chilbrook dogs as they seemed to have a certain air about them I hadn’t noticed before. There were hundreds of people around the hotel and conference, so they got a good dose of how to behave in a crowd. Since I was speaking for two sessions at the conference and Sam was busy manning our table selling books and sniffer supplies, I was concerned about the girls getting the attention they needed. Then it dawned on me—I was at a convention of professional dog trainers! Maybe one of my fellow IACP members wouldn’t mind taking a puppy for the day. I didn’t have to look far to find volunteers to nanny the girls for the days I was speaking. We caught glimpses of them shopping the vendors, trying out all the new toys, learning to walk on the doggie treadmills on display, and going to and from lecture rooms. Around dinner time, we managed to wrangle them back. By the end of the day, they were happy to go to their crates and crash.

Gillie really wanted to go swimming with the sea lions.

I can’t count the number of photos people from the conference have sent me of Harley and Ruby. I know now that when they see a camera they just stop and smile. I guess that’s something I can add to the list of things they’ve learned but I’m not sure how that will enhance their résumés. On our last day at the resort, we happened to be in the room when the cleaning person stopped in. We learned quickly that she was terrified of dogs, so Sam and I decided to take the girls with their Uncle Gillie, who was also with us, to Sea World. Gillie would enjoy a chance to dive into one of the many pools there since he was affected by the increased heat as well. I think the girls were just happy to have all the attention of the crowds of people who couldn’t resist petting them.

If I didn’t know better, I would say their egos were pretty big by the end of the morning.  Next stop, the South Eastern Guide Dog School in Palmetto, Florida.