I am feeling a bit under the weather today, and sat down at the computer to blog about something. Wasn’t sure what, so I started looking through my photos, and realized I had never told you about my awesome dog. He’s not one for the spotlight, as you can see in the pic above! You’ve seen pics here and there, it’s obvious he is a great family dog, but my dog has quite a story! Pull up a chair, and let me share it with you….
During our pre-kid life, S and I decided to sign up to be puppy raisers with Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, CA–one of the largest and most reputable service dog schools in the world. This was something I had done years before. This school has a very selective breeding program for dogs with excellent physical and temperment traits. When the pups are about 6 weeks old, they are weaned from their mothers and given some basic tests. Some are culled, spayed or neutered, and adopted out due to not passing these tests. Those that pass are sent to puppy raisers when they are about 8-10 weeks old. For the next 12-14 months, the puppy raiser follows very strict guidelines in raising these puppies. They teach the pup basic household commands such as sit, stay, come, etc. They are responsible for house-breaking the pup, teaching it walk properly on a leash, and socializing the puppy. Shortly after we signed up, we were given Will, an adorable 8-week old Golden retriever/Labrador cross.
As required, we spent the next 14 months training him according to protocol. Of course, the most fun part starts during the socializing. Because the dog is being trained as a service dogs, many states offer the dogs entry rights similiar to fully-trained service dogs (though there are limits!). As a result, Will was allowed to accompany us almost everywhere we went. He had a special little jacket he wore that identified him as a Guide Dog in training.
At work with S, learning how to behave at an office job
He was granted access to air show we attended, and they even let us have some great and unique photo-ops!
We took him on all our vacations, into restaurants, grocery stores, theaters, you name it. He quickly became a very well-rounded, well-socialized, well-behaved dog. He was excellent representative of service dogs in general. Hey, it’s what he was bred for. Sadly, eventually our time was up and he had to be returned to the school for his formal “Guide Dog” training. This is where all their training is fine-tuned, and they are taught in an actual leading harness, and they are taught how to guide a person who is somehow visually impaired. This training lasts about 4-6 months on average.
Shortly before Will left, I got pregnant. After Will left I soon realized that the pregnancy was progressing quickly. I became very nervous about caring for an infant, as a diabetic mommy. My husband was gone a lot, and I was alone. The thought of not waking up to care for a newborn one day terrified me. I began researching options, and discovered a program where a dog could be trained to smell and alert to low blood sugars. I was intrigued. After further research, we located a trainer who was willing to help me learn more. Using the knowledge I had gained through being a puppy-raiser, S and I began searching for a prospect to train. Eventually, we found a Golden Retriever named Jack. Long story, short, within a few short months, he was beginning to alert consistently, and, in addition to the other assistance training we gave him, he legally qualified as a Medical Alert Dog for Diabetes.
Jack, my first alert dog.
Jack became my shadow, and took great pride in his job. However, he had one fault….he was VERY sensitive. If I had to correct or scold him for something, he had a tendency to pout for a while and take it very personally. In the mean time, my first baby was born, and Jack helped me out on a number of occasions. There were several nights I would awake very low and Jack would eagerly run grab me a juice box or something. I still had horses at the time, and he was excellent at “getting in my way” if my blood sugar got low while I was training a horse. He would pester me until I tested and treated my low, and then he would leave me alone. He absolutely excelled in this area. He made a great service dog, but because I had a bolder personality, we just didn’t “mesh” personality wise as well as I would have liked. Nonetheless, we kept at it for over a year, trying to improve that one area.
While all this was going on, we got word that Will was being held in training a bit longer than normal. As it turned out, when he went through his final guiding test, they said he was an exceptional dog, and the trainers loved everything about him. But, he had one major flaw–he was obsessed with playing with other dogs. He worked beautifully until he saw a dog somewhere, then he would get so distracted he would forget to guide. Because he excelled in every other way, the trainers decided to hold him back and continue to try to work through the issue. After several months, though, a decision had to be made. It was decided to “career change” him. In the past, a career change dog was generally adopted out as a pet, and the puppy raiser would be given first choice to adopt it. In recent years, though, it has been determined that a dog not suited for guiding work may be perfectly suited for another line of service work. As a result, they began forming a new program where the school would give priority to other service dog organizations to take the dog. I was a part of the last year where puppy-raisers were given priority. So, they called one day and asked if we wanted him back. Now, we loved Will–he was a spectacular dog, so we immediately agreed to take him, and it was decided we would just keep him as a pet.
Very soon after he returned, we realized Will was learning from Jack how to alert. Will began showing great interest in performing the same tasks Jack did for me. We decided he very likely had the potential and the desire since he had been bred for it, so we thought we would give him a couple months of down time as a pet to see what he did. He began learning so quickly that Jack actually started to get jealous. For example, if I had a low, Will would very proudly race to the cooler, grab me a juice box, and bring it to me–before Jack could get there. This would send Jack into a pouting session. One day, Jack rebelled and decided to break open the juice boxes and drink them himself. I realized this wasn’t going to work. Jack, however, was a great service dog, so we decided to put word out that he was available to a more sensitive person, with whom his personality would be a better match. Then, if we could find someone, I would focus on re-training and fine-tuning Will for the new line of work. After all, he was already half way there!
After several interviews and tests, we eventually found a family for whom Jack meshed perfectly. They had a little boy who was having severe night time lows, and the parents were running short on sleep. They needed another option. We weren’t sure how Jack would handle the change (the dogs tend to bond very closely with “their” diabetic), but we agreed to give it a go. The family went through an intensive training period to gradually get Jack acquainted with them as well as teach them the laws, rules, and methods of handling Jack. Overtime, they proved to be a perfect match. Jack very quickly learned to alert the parents that the boy was having a low, and potentially diverted several major crises. And, the parents were finally able to get some sleep at night. A very happy ending for all.
Once my attention was focused on Will, thanks to his earlier training, he caught on with no problem. Our personalities were perfect for each other. With Jack out of the house, Will began alerting consistently, and responding as needed. He would pester me even if I was actually riding a horse and developed a low blood sugar, always getting in the way until I treated my sugar. Because I didn’t require his eyes for the job, his dog-distraction was an issue we were easily able to deal with. He quickly qualified as a legal Medical Alert Dog, and life rolled on for several years. When Will was about 6, he showed some signs of arthritis, I got out of horses, and we had 3 young children, making it difficult for me to keep up with a dog in public. I had also grown better at stabilizing my blood sugars, so I didn’t need him in the same way. We decided to retire him, and he once again became a pet. He continued to alert for a while, but for some technical reasons, I quit encouraging it, so his alert (and thereby, his attachment to me) has gradually diminished over the last 2 years.
So, now, we have Will the retired service dog, and awesome pet. I don’t believe in cloning animals, but if I did, he would be the one I cloned! He is just the best family pet anyone could ask for. Once in a while, his training shows and he will alert to a low for me, which is an added bonus and testament to the amazing ability of these dogs. They thrive on having a job to do. Now, though, we just let him live the good life, and we are witnessing his dark gold nose turn whiter as time goes by. He always has the regal air about him though, and we hope for many more years with him. We all dream of the day we can pay him back for his amazing service and loyalty by letting him run free on the farm like every dog should have a chance to do.