Choosing a Medical Alert Pup for Training

by Debby Kay  ©2018  All rights reserved.

Last week I started doing scent detection training with a couple of eight week old Labrador puppies.  What is striking about the pups is the ease which they have grasped the training.  It is clear after working many other breeds of dogs the difference it makes when you have a puppy who is first, from a working breeding of dog and second, purposefully bred for a job such as these puppies.

People ask me all the time how do you choose a puppy for the medical alert work and I thought writing a little about these pups might help people who are looking to get one themselves.

I try to always choose a puppy from parents who are either doing the job I want the puppy to do or have at least been trained to do it and can demonstrate their ability.  With the medical alert work that might not always be possible but the parents could have abilities that demonstrate related skill sets.  For example, they could have tracking degrees, search and rescue certifications or scent detection titles. If the breeder you are dealing with can’t show any of their dogs with these titles, and especially the parents, then I would walk away. Thinking they can do the work and proving it by actually earning tittles or certifications are very different things and make a difference when you get your dog for such an important purpose. For the medical alert dogs, I want some evidence of good social skills so I look for parents with good citizen titles or obedience titles.  This will be helpful in narrowing your choices especially if you are not an experienced dog person, to puppies from parents with proven abilities.

Being able to focus on the job and the person they are working with is another trait that makes training a puppy for medical work much easier.  This trait is tricky to judge in little pups under 4 months as pups at this age have short attention spans.  I will bait a room with 1-3 smelly things such as fishy cat treats and just watch how a puppy reacts when they come in the room.  A pup from parents who are bred to use their noses will go over the space thoroughly sniffing every nook and will find all the treats.   When I sit down with a treat hidden in my pocket, the pup I want will be the one who almost immediately follows its nose to the pocket with the treat. I have done this test with breeds that are not necessarily food driven as well and it is a pretty good indicator for sorting out the pups that will be easy to train for scent work.

Madison is one of the pups I am training now. Madison’s dam is a diabetic alert dog who took time off from her duties to whelp a litter of pups with me.  Her sire is an explosives detection dog who has sired many working medical alert and other detection dogs.  On the first day of her introduction to the diabetic sample, Madison sniffed and stayed with it. By the end of the session she already adding in the paw alert signal on her own.  Her focus was for short periods but she repeatedly sniffed and pawed at the sample until her little tummy was willed with treats.

It was easy to get 25-30 repetitions of the scent training exercise per training session with her. Compared to some of the others pups I have worked with over the years at the same age that is really very good for the first week.  That is not to say a pup won’t learn if you only get 5-10 repetitions at a session. It means it will take longer for that less focused pup to build up a good scent memory of the odor that is central to their job.  Dogs learn by repetition so I am keen to give them as many repetitions as I can at every session.  For my money (and time) I really don’t want a pup doing life-saving work that does not have the natural desire.

Madison is also learning games of self-control and things to teach her about body awareness at this age.  These are two important parts of a service dog’s education also.  Here is a short video of one of her training sessions.  She has a lot to learn but is off to a good start.

For anyone interested in learning more about all inner workings of canine olfaction I am hosting a 2-day workshop in April by the world renown expert in the field Dr. Adee Schoon from the Netherlands.   She brings the science and practical aspects of scent work all together in a manner that is easy to understand and motivating at the same time.  Hope you can join use for this rare opportunity to learn from such a gifted knowledgeable person. Click here for details.

Smart Phones, Smarter Dogs, and more Smart Technology

I would not call myself a techno-geek but for an old lady I do try to keep up with things as the world changes.  Technology can be wonderful in many ways to make our lives better and can even help with training our dogs, especially our service dogs.  While I find my greatest satisfaction comes from getting my hands dirty in my garden or stroking a furry critter, I do try to incorporate the technology in my dog training when I feel it is appropriate.  With this blog I would like to examine a few things in that area that can help with training you might not have tried yet.

Smart phones are a great invention and I am still learning some of the many incredible things my phone can do for me. One simple feature for people training their own service dogs can use, is the alarm feature.  Setting an alarm, a simple task, can help you stay on track with your training program.  Its easy to get distracted so just go to your calendar and set up appointments with yourself for training time with your dog and turn on the alarm reminders.  While you are on the calendar plug in all the dates your dog gets heartworm, flea prevention and when vaccines expire.  I was appalled recently when I learned a client had let heartworm and all the vaccines expire on their dog that they had brought for breeding to my stud.  There is no excuse for this if you have a smart phone.

The phone can also help with training, as it is a great source of sounds.  I use several apps to create noises to help socialize pups or desensitize older dogs. All the apps I found were free too. No reason you should have a noise sensitive dog if you have a smart phone. And while you are training you can also be taking videos from your phone that can be reviewed later by you or another trainer to help with any training situation that might come up.  This is one of the best features of smart phones in my book.

Some other technology that is really useful are the new age electronic collars that have built in lights and tracking devices.  I have a lot of black or dark colored dogs and at night when everyone goes out for the last potty walk the light on the collar really comes in handy for keeping track of dogs.  Here is a link to one of my favorite eCollars that lights up.

c92af701-dd27-4b83-83b1-d9ee92d24d35The tracking devices are super nice too, they run on an app on your smart phone. What a great invention for helping to keep track of dogs, especially in my situation where we are on a farm in the country.  They are very easy to use and very reliable too.

Perhaps the best new thing to be tested so far is a new device that the service dogs wear on their vests.  When something happens to their owner they can pull a tag and the device will repeat, “ My owner needs help” until someone comes to help the distressed person.  There are other electronic devices being tested for dogs to activate to help a person but most of those are still in testing phases.  Dogs might not be able to speak as we do but this is one step closer to allowing them to “call” for help when they sense distress for their person.

I’ve also been doing a little digging into some research on breeding smarter dogs.  There is actually more work being done in this area than I first suspected and I find it quite fascinating. One thing that some of the research supports is that dogs that excel at a job will produce puppies that have a better than average chance of excelling at the job also. This is what has been referred to as Instinctive Intelligence. So dogs bred for example to be great sniffing dogs for many generations do this behavior on their own and require a trainer to just put a few rules to this natural drive to make it work for the partnership.  Another thing that scientists look at is what they call Adaptive Intelligence which is a quality needed for medical alert dogs as they need to learn and adapt to the changes of their person’s medical condition and solve problems presented as a result.  This is something that can vary within a given breed with some dogs having better adaptive abilities than others. This is also different than the dog’s learning ability when instructed by humans, which the scientists called Working Intelligence.  I feel that all three need to be present in a very high degree to in order to make a good service dog, especially a medical alert dog.Morgan and Ranger pups

Most breeders do not train their breeding stock to be service dogs and thus are not able to know to what degree the dogs possess these different levels of intelligence. This makes getting a puppy a very tricky proposition for a person looking for a service dog prospect.   I know one group I was asked to help with their breeding program, experienced greater success with future litters when they finally trained all their breeding stock. They were better able once doing this, to determine how to improve the breeding of future litters.  Smarter dogs are possible and are becoming more available as professionals are learning how to apply what science is discovering, to the practical world of producing better service dog prospects.

I would like to end with a favorite quote and some food for thought:

Quality is never an accident. It is always the result of intelligent effort. – John Ruskin



Tabouli’s Traveling Tips for Flying with a Service Dog

By Debby Kay ©2017 All rights reserved

When you travel by air for the first time with a service dog there are a number of things you need to be aware of as airlines, airports and those associated with these services have many different ideas on what’s right about dogs.   To give you a first-hand view of what to expect and how to prepare, I asked one of my well-traveled service dog friends, Tabouli, for his list of things to remember for your dog.

T in line at airport

Tabouli likes to have his own bag with all his stuff in one place. This might mean an extra baggage charge depending on the airlines. T mat in airport

One way around all this is to have the bag sent ahead by overnight express mail. For the trip you won’t need much other than paperwork (particularly important for overseas flights) and collar, harness, and leash along with your dog’s vest if he wears one. One useful tip is to have a small TSA compliant combination slip lead with no metal on it for going through the metal detector.  Once you are through the detectors you can put on the regular gear.

Tabouli loves the window seat

T out airplane window

Looking out the window at 30,000 feet

because people don’t step over him and since he is a small dog that sits on his person’s lap he gets to rest his head on the arm rest.  Small dogs like small children can sit in the lap and should also be buckled into the seat belt. There are some easy to use devices available online like the EzyDog Seatbelt Restraint for under $10.

One thing Tabouli told me he didn’t like were the service dog relief areas at the airports. They are mostly indoors when available and for a well housebroken dog like him he can’t bring himself to using it.  If your dog is like him then be sure to give your dog lots of time to walk and relieve himself outside before you get to the airport. If I know a puppy is going to be traveling, then I teach them as puppies to use Piddle Pads and to evacuate on command.  To help the dog feel more comfortable you may want to restrict water and food intake to a minimum prior to the flight.

One thing Tabouli experiences a lot are really crowded trains and buses as they are moving from airport terminal to plane and parking lots. T crowded busIt helps if you practice taking your dog to crowded places before you get to the airport so as not to stress your dog out. Catch a bus or subway train as part of preparation for your trip so the dog has at least some experience before the first trip to the airport. Dogs needs are really simple when traveling, the main thing to remember is prepare them by training in places similar to airport situations as much as you can before you fly. Go for walks during rush hour at busy stations or similar places, go to crowded city stores or events, but best of all if you can get to the airport to practice before you actual travel that will go a long way towards alleviating stress for your dog’s first flight.

For more information on flying with dogs visit K9Wings.  Safe travels everyone and a special thank you to Tabouli for sharing his insights.

T on boat

Getting Motivated

By Debby Kay ©2016 all rights reserved

“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.” – Jim Rohn

Keeping yourself motivated to do something, to accomplish that goal you set as your New Year’s resolution, seems to be a difficult task for many people. I know through dealing with people who want to train their own dogs, they will be very eager and fully engaged during the workshops I teach, but once they get home, they lose momentum in their training program. No doubt it is not easy to stay on task but there are some techniques I have learned over the years that help me to stay focused when training the dogs and reach those goals I have set.

As Jim Rohn pointed out in the quote I took from one of his seminars, part of success at anything is making a habit of doing things. This is particularly true with dog training. By this I am not talking about big projects, overwhelming goals, or multiple miracle accomplishments. To make a habit of succeeding, you need to start small.

Make an appointment with yourself for training time

Make an appointment with yourself for training time

For example in my online training course, Sweet Snoopers, I have broken the course down into very small lessons, so you and your dog can experience successes as you build your habit of training. Setting appointments for training time is another good tool for developing the habit. Most people carry a cell phone with them, so it is easy to set a daily alarm to remind you that it is time to train. If you make it a rule to not ignore the reminder, you’d be surprised how quickly you will develop the daily habit of training your dog. I caution you, though, don’t fall into a rut with your training, take a little time to review what you need to teach, keeping it interesting by changing elements of the training (such as location or distractions). Your dog will love this and you will begin to see a difference in the behavior of your dog as you work more with them. When I hold a 4-day or longer workshop we always see a huge improvement in the dog’s behaviors just because people are spending the time with their dogs.

Once you get in the habit of the regular training and purposeful interaction with your dog, that is the point that you begin to see miraculous progress in your dog’s responses. I really feel that many people can prevent a lot of their problems with their canine companions if they would only follow this simple advice. As cold as January is where I live, I still take the dogs out for their daily walks and exercise and we still do at least two training sessions a day. It’s not easy to give up the warmth of inside to spend time outside training, but it is necessary because service dogs go everywhere with their people, so they have to learn to do their lessons in the cold outside as well. With my tracking dogs, I still track in the winter for much the same reason as I train service dogs outside—the scenting conditions are different and the dogs have to learn and experience that set of parameters before I consider them fully trained.
Here’s a short list to help you keep on track with your training and make it a habit:

  • Set appointments in your cell phone, calendar, or computer for your training sessions and don’t break the appointments.
  • Keep the times and length of the sessions doable for your lifestyle but don’t cheat the dog of his time either—find a balance.
  • Consult with a professional trainer in your area to locate groups you might join occasionally for a few group training sessions. Peer pressure and a little informal competition can be useful to keep you motivated.
  • Post your questions to my Facebook page.
  • Download my free Achievement Ladder, print it and post on your fridge to remind yourself of what you need to do with your dog each week.

If you are training your own service dog and you are not a professional trainer, it can be a daunting task. Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed. Partner with the proper experienced professional if you need to—it will be money well spent.

I liked what one of my students said about her medical alert dog and his training:

“It’s my life he is saving so the least I can do is spend the time helping him to be the best he can be.”

Join a class or team with a pro trainer for support

Join a class or team with a pro trainer for support

5 Things to Remember When Picking the Right Puppy for Service Dog Work

For those who follow the Chilbrook Labradors on Facebook you know that this month my litter of puppies from Gillie and Cookie has turn 8 weeks old. At this age they are starting to leave for their new homes which means it is time for me to decide which ones from the litter will be sorted out to be the next generation of service dogs. I am often asked how do you decide which ones to pick? I have 5 general guidelines when picking a purebred puppy for the medical alert service dog work that I would like to share with you. Some of this applies to adult dogs and even rescues but I am focusing in this blog on the pups.

The first thing I look at is the pedigree; who are the parents and what do they represent and bring to the litter in the way of temperament, structure and trainability. The pedigree when analyzed will tell you the approximate size the puppy will end up being. It will give you hints of possible working traits that you might need for the particular situation the pup will be in training for. The pedigree will also be your best indication of inherited health risks. When you study the pedigree compared to the public database at you can see production records and gather information to help calculate the inheritance of traits. I get pretty serious about all this and yes it does require higher math skills and probably is a lot more than the average person wants to know but at the very least you can look at a pedigree and determine the following:

  1. Do all the parents and grandparents at a minimum have health clearances appropriate for the breed. [1]
  2. How many of the dogs in the pedigree have produced working service dog offspring?
  3. How many dogs in the pedigree have some sort of performance title or have been tested and certified for some other job?

The more dogs you see in the pedigree that have produced pups that have qualified as service dogs at some capacity, the better. It goes without saying that the more complete the health clearances on the relatives in the pedigree the better chance that a pup from the litter will be healthy.

The next thing I want to do is get the pups out into an area that they know and just watch them interact. The more distractions, obstacles, and things that the puppies can interact with the better you will be able to see something about their character. Here is a short video of the litter interacting with their environment.

When I am looking at pups in this situation I want to see who instigates the charge into a new area, who is confident-clumsy-careful on new surfaces, obstacles or around new people or dogs present. How are they interacting with the things they find? Do they give it a once over and walk away? Or do they stay and engage, exploring all the angles of whatever they have encountered. How many times does it take to learn a new behavior? If they fall or have a negative experience what do they do? I want a pup that is bold but not too bold, confident but not a bully, one that is a thinker and is not satisfied until they have learned everything about a new encounter, and one that is not too sensitive-who recovers well from anything that happens.

The third area I look at is how those same pups act now in a totally new environment. I will look for all the same things and compare to my notes from the previous area. Consistency of character speaks volumes to me and rarely do I find that a pup that is the same in all the testing situations will ever fail me in training.

Once I have done the above with the litter, I will bring the pups inside one at a time to a small area, preferably one they don’t know. Before the pup comes in, I will put out a smelly container of canned cat food someplace in the area where it is not too obvious. It is best if you can put it under a plastic milk crate or something similar. I bring the pup in, put it down, and say nothing. What I am looking for is the pup that once it gets its bearings, the nose starts and it just has to track down that tempting smell. The pup that does not stop until it finds it and then persists at trying to figure out how to get the food out from under the crate gets high marks here.

The final test is what I call the snuggle test.

baby cuddled against a young pup

The Snuggle Test will determine a lot about a future SD

We are all finished and it is just me and the pup, do they come and snuggle with me and settle down for a nap in my lap or beside me, or do they go off someplace away from me to do so? How does the pup look at me, what does the pup do to get my attention? A puppy that sits and looks at me in a thoughtful way, interacts by snuggling when I talk to them will get high marks from me in this area. Medical alert dogs are such a part of someone’s life they have to have that connection with people from the start to make the best results from the training. Sure, training and feeding a dog will help it bond with you but if the pup is connected to people strongly from the beginning before any training you are just that much further ahead. You can always pick out a headstrong independent dog with this little test and if nothing else, just being able to avoid a dog like that makes the test worth doing.

[1] This information can be found on the website under the specific breeds

Observations on Learning

There are many advantages to having a birthday in June, I think the best one though is the warm weather allows you to spend time at the beach. I am posting this month’s blog from the beaches along the Adriatic Sea off the eastern shore of Italy’s Marche region.   This area is noted for its natural beauty and pristine sandy beaches, with gentle surfs and relaxing atmosphere. Being a seafood lover, I have landed at the right place as Fano, the town where I am staying, is noted for its variety and expertise in preparing seafood. So far, every day I have sampled something new and different and have yet to find a dish I did not like. Dinner tonight was tender Calamari and shrimp grilled to perfection. The local wines are particularly noted here for their distinctive flavors, what wine experts call “terroir”.

Italian landscape

The Marche Region of Italy

This trip however is not about my birthday, it just so happens my birthday is at the same time as the workshop I am giving here. Snoopers and I have been fortunate enough to be invited to this great dog loving country to teach people about Diabetes Alert Dogs, a first for the Italians as these types of dogs are not known in this part of Europe. It seems that people are curious if not skeptical about the work these dogs can perform as this workshop is sold out.

It is challenging to attempt to teach people who do not totally embrace your same enthusiasm for the great work you know your dogs can do. I can understand though the skepticism of the people here about the claims of the dog’s abilities to monitor and sense subtle changes in someone’s body chemistry. When you think about what they are capable of doing it does in some ways sound like science fiction. Snoopers and I no doubt will have our work cut out for us as we demonstrate and help them to understand the process by which the dogs learn.

man working with a Labrador under the instruction of Debby Kay

Learning the basics

After decades of watching, teaching and studying how dogs learn I feel I pretty much understand the canine mind in that regards. What I find myself studying more these days however, is how the human mind learns. I have been reading book after book on human cognition in addition to learning more on canine cognition, trying to find the key elements that can make the human canine partnership work smoothly and seamlessly when doing medical alert work. The whole topic is fascinating and as I have learned with one of the books I just finished this partnership has very ancient roots.

Anthropologist Pat Shipman, author of the book The Invaders, wrote a very convincing argument that the success of the modern hominid (our ancient, mostly cave dwelling ancestors) was due in large part to the successful partnership formed with the early wolf-dogs. If you are looking for a good read at the beach this summer this is one book you will want to pick. An important takeaway from the book as well as the other literary research I have been doing so far is it is just as important for the human as the canine in any program but especially in medical alert work to learn each of the lessons. Think about that statement for a minute. Often when we are training dogs we are just thinking about teaching the dogs. What I have observed and found to contribute to the success of the medical alert teams however, is when both the human and the dog learn the key take away of each lesson together.

Let me give you an example to show what I mean. As you are teaching a dog an alert signal, some sign that there is a change in the person the dog is monitoring, it is really critical that the human learn what the dog is learning so they can understand as well, how the dog will be communicating with them. Often one of the most surprising things I have found is people are not aware of the dog trying to alert them and dogs eventually quitting when they are no longer rewarded for doing their job. I have worked to incorporate many of the subtle nuances of the learning principles I have studied into my new on line course, Sweet Snoopers, in hopes to seeing better relationships of the teams through a deeper understanding of each other.

group photo of people and dogs that attended the class

The students from the Fano Class

Size Doesn’t Matter

By Debby Kay © January 2015 all rights reserved 

When I was growing up my father kept a kennel of hounds, so all the dogs I knew where his dogs. I asked for my own and finally when I was six he got me my first dog very own dog, a female tri colored Chihuahua that I named Candy. Over my years in dogs I have had a total of 19 Chihuahuas and have really come to enjoy the breed. I mentioned to my husband Sam I would love to have another one that I can also use to demonstrate my training methods at my workshops, but it would have to a very special dog if he/she was to represent what a small service dog can be like.

Several months ago a russet colored Chihuahua at a Dog Days street festival stole my heart. He was wearing a tiny scarf that said, “Adopt Me”. I watched him for quite some time as dozens of dogs of every breed and size imaginable went by. He stood quietly unless one of them stopped to sniff and then he would sniff them back, wagging his tail the whole time. The shelter volunteer that was holding his leash had no awareness of what the dog was doing. At one point two people each walking well-muscled pit bull terriers stopped to chat with the girl holding the Chihuahua. Since the people were engaged in conversation they failed to see the challenging stare that the two pits were giving each other. The tiny Chihuahua offered some calming signals to the two larger dogs but neither were paying any attention to him and in an instant the Pits were lunging and snarling at each other over the top of the Chihuahua. Quickly the Chihuahua backed off a safe distance and watched quietly as the two dogs tried to rip each other apart. When the whole mess was finally stopped and the aggressive dogs left, the little dog just looked after the retreating dogs with a look of amusement. I smiled and walked over to the Shelter table and asked if I could adopt the little dog whose name I learned was Boo.

head study of red colored chihuahua

Boo the Chihuahua making himself at home.

Boo acts like he has lived in our house all his life. The integration has been seamless. You would think a Chihuahua in a house with 15 Labrador Retrievers would be hiding all the time but nothing could be further from reality. Boo walks with the Labs and hunts birds with them and will retrieve anything that he can carry or drag just like the Labs. He realizes he is small and will stay out of the way when the Labs get crazy and start jumping around a lot but otherwise they treat him with the same respect they give any other adult dog; size doesn’t matter.

I am in the process now of training Boo to be the demo dog for the medical detection workshops I teach. I want people to know not all service dogs have to be medium to large size dogs like Labradors. Small dogs have a definite place in the world of service dogs. They still have very good noses and can alert on scent changes in a human, they are capable of activating an alarm, and can very well get someone to help if needed. For many people who live in apartments with limited space the small dog is the perfect answer. The best part about the smaller dogs is they fit into places the larger dogs do not such as on public transportation. The down side though is many of them are not as willing to work as some of the larger typical service breeds are, so finding a really good one can be a long and arduous search. I got very lucky when I found Boo. He is smart, willing, and just slightly larger than most Chihuahuas, weighing in at 8.1 pounds, which is about as small as you would want for a detector dog.

Some other considerations when looking at size for your potential detector dog is their face structure. Be aware that dogs with too short a muzzle could possibly have breathing problems, which would interfere with the detector work. Boo had a nice length muzzle for his size, which helps him with his scent work. Many little dogs I had been looking at only wanted to sleep and had no interest in work, so it was refreshing to see Boo with his eager to please attitude and insatiable appetite for tasty treats. Both of these qualities help a dog learn the scent lessons they will need so they are high on my list when screening potential dogs. As with the larger breeds, the smaller breeds have their own list of potentially serious genetic problems such as patella and teeth issues to name a few, so it is important to learn what these are for the small breed you are considering. Boo checked out clean on all these points as well.

The obedience training part of the service dog work with a small dog is the same as with any other dog. I do not make any excuses for a dog to not learn obedience just because they are small. There is no need to carry a small dog everywhere, they are capable of walking and in my opinion they seem to prefer it. If I do a lot walking, Boo does get tired as he is working twice as hard or more to keep up with my stride, so I make sure he has sufficient rest time to recover and have also taken care to build up his stamina. When I first got Boo I enrolled him immediately into a Manners Class at the local obedience school where he graduated 8 weeks later with his AKC Canine Good Citizen award.

Author with her Chihuahua

Boo at his graduation from Manners Class.

The greatest challenge in training the small dog as an alert dog has been with the alert itself. It is easy to teach the sit and paw when a person is in the house, or at a desk such as in an office. What is more difficult is to teach the alert when you are out walking. To overcome this obstacle, I am working with Boo to have him grab a tab and tug on it. I have tried several different ways of doing this and may have hit on the right design when it occurred to me that something on his leash would make the most sense. I’m working with my service dog leash maker now to get that set up and can’t wait to share the photos with everyone when we get the final design worked out. I mention all this to point out that while training a small dog is a challenge and there are limitations to what they can do, there is no reason you can’t train your little guy to help out and experience the success I am finding as I move along the program with Boo.