Evaluating Medical Alert Dogs

I recently hosted an intense hands-on workshop at my kennels for dog professionals that want to train dogs to help people with medical issues. Most of the trainers were there to learn more about the diabetes alert dog program but we also had trainers interested in seizure alerting (not to be confused with response dogs), Crones disease alerting, and allergen detection dogs. In order to make this workshop the most meaningful for these trainers I brought in a bunch of dogs at all different levels of training for these various detection jobs. A good part of the dogs came from a request I put out to those service dog users I knew. We would offer free training for their dogs, for the time of the workshop, to help anyone having problems. There was a great response and we got dogs at all levels of proficiency; half the dogs at the workshop ended up being owner trained.

Dog trainers usually have strong personalities; this comes from many years of taking charge of unruly dogs. But this group of trainers proved to be more than what you might think of a dog trainer in general, they were truly educators. It became very apparent early into the workshop that everyone was here because they cared passionately about the dogs and they truly wanted to use their skills and abilities as dog trainers to help educate people who were now asking the dogs in their lives to do more than sleep by the fireplace on a cold night. It was quite moving when people came to pick up the dogs how much time these trainers spent with the owners to help them understand the issues the dogs were having and what to do about it. The owners shared with us how very difficult it is to manage their conditions and train a dog at the same time. This sharing was valuable so trainers could devise exercises to fit a person’s life style and abilities, and show them things they could easily incorporate into their daily routine. The learning went both ways and was one of the best exchanges I have witnessed.

Overall the owners did a great job with the training of their dogs. As we worked the dogs both in the classroom and out on the streets however patterns appeared in the dog’s behavior that were clues to a few deficiencies in their training.

Pulling on the leash and lack of attention were near the top as two big problems. When we randomly passed off scent samples to the handlers to see if the dogs would alert in the new settings, the owner-trained dogs had more trouble focusing enough to find the scent sample when there were high distractions. Once the dogs were stopped and worked a little with the high distraction, they were able for the most part able to settle down enough to work a few repetitions of finding the scent sample.   The high distractions proved time and again to be the undoing of many of the dogs. It took work on the part of the trainers to get the dogs to settle down. I can understand this concept of working in public with some really strong distractions is something most people training their own dog would not think to do.

I made a short list to help people remember when they are out training with their dogs to look for some of the following circumstances, then work your dog there until the dog is comfortable and reliable in alerting there.

  1. In the store in a narrow isle where people are going by with shopping carts.
  2. In a store with machinery operating, such a lumber yard with forklifts.
  3. On the streets near the fire station when the alarm sounds.
  4. At a train station.
  5. In a park where there are a lot of pigeons and squirrels. I throw out treats for the critters first and get them all around eating when I start training with the dog.
  6. At a ball game or other sports event.

Simple things like this are so valuable to the dog’s education. If the dog is not relaxed in a novel environment they are not going to have the focus to be able to do their job at detecting whatever smell they are trained to alert on. This type of training is something you need to practice at least 4 or 5 times a week with your young dog. If you are raising your own puppy, after a year of constant exposure to new places, sights, and sounds your dog would be exposed enough that he should do his job no matter where you take him.

The pulling on the leash problem is something that should be avoided while training the new puppy. They should learn from the beginning not to pull on the leash either by you stopping when they get to the end of the leash and not moving again until they return to your side, or by letting them hit the end of the leash while charging out away from you. Stopping short like this usually gets their attention and they will return to you, at which time you reward with a nice treat and kind words. Quickly, pups will learn where the best spot is for near you. Practicing loose leash walking with the younger pups in many new areas with loads of distractions ensures they do not get so excited when going places they pull on the leash. It takes a lot of daily practice.

A group of service dogs walking down a town street

Learning to loose leash walk in town with lots of distractions

If you are training your own dog you are going to have to make the time, even if that means you make an appointment with yourself. Later when you go back to these places with a scent sample for training your dog should have enough focus so as not to miss the presence of the sample.

We also saw the dogs coming in with a wide array of equipment some of which was very ineffective. I remember when I was a youngster in my father’s workshop. He had at least 8 different types of hammers. I could not understand why so many until he explained that each one is designed for a different job. The same is true of collars, leashes and harnesses. I would not expect an owner trainer to understand the differences any more than my father expected me to understand the different types of hammers. This might be an area though where an owner handler can benefit from working with a pro trainer; they will know the equipment that is best for your dog. Be prepared to change equipment too as the dog continues to grow and develop. For puppies a well fitting buckle collar, appropriately sized 6-foot leash, and a 20-foot light line are a good start. Having a treat bag that you can snap on when you pick up the leash to take your puppy out is also something to consider when you are buying equipment. My pouch has a separate area for my clicker and treats and another zippered place for keys and pick up bags.

Speaking of pick up bags, it is important that your dog know how to eliminate on command, on a leash, or on pavement. If you are training your own dog and starting with a puppy, make sure you walk your puppy on a leash when they go outside to potty. Put the act of them doing something to a cue word, praise and treat when they are done and clearly convey to the pup that you are very pleased with them. Teaching the pup to go on surfaces other than grass is simply a matter of taking them to a new area (gravel, sand, pavement) and giving your cue word, waiting patiently then praising profusely when they finally eliminate. This will be a lifesaver many times over when you are traveling or going places where grass may be off limits or non-existent. It is a simple element easy to forget to teach.

We all felt the workshop was successful, the trainers learned new techniques, the dogs benefited from experienced hands on their leash, the owners that generously shared their dogs with us got some terrific free advise and training, the trainers got priceless feedback and knowledge on the lives diabetics and others living with chronic diseases experience, and many new friendships were made. I feel very grateful to work with such a dedicated group of trainers who really care about helping people get the best from their relationship with their working dog and to know so many dedicated owner handler trainers as well. Many of the pro trainers are diabetics or have family members that are diabetic or suffer from some other disease that has drawn them to working and training with service dogs. All of them have decades of experience in training and living with dogs. Everyone had the same goal as I do, which is to share our knowledge of dogs with those who need help with their dog. Keep up the great work everyone!