Service dogs have been helping humans for centuries, providing assistance and companionship to people with disabilities. They help people with a wide range of conditions — visual, hearing, mobility issues, people with seizures PTSD, autism, and many more — to live happy, fulfilling lives. Over the last decade or so, a new kind of service dog has helped many families living with type 1 diabetes. Diabetic Alert Dogs (DADs) are trained to detect high or low levels of blood sugar in T1D individuals, sometimes recognizing hypoglycemia or hyperglycemia even before blood glucose monitors. Like other service dogs, diabetic alert dogs are usually purebred. DAD training organizations typically source dogs from breeders or partner with other service dog organizations such as guide dogs for the blind. Service dog trainer Erica Horn, however, offers an often-overlooked source: the local dog shelter.
Erica and her partner Alex run T1Dogs, an organization that trains in-home and full-service diabetic alert dogs. They also run The Doggie Day Inn, a cage-free day care and vacation home for dogs. Erica has a degree in Cynology from Bergin University of Canine Studies and has been around dogs all her life. Prior to starting her own training business, Erica trained DADs with Early Alert Canines. She also has extensive experience working with shelter dogs. T1Dogs trains DADs from a variety of backgrounds, including dogs from breeders or other service organizations, family dogs, and shelter dogs. In addition, Erica has a degree of empathy with her clients that many trainers do not: she has had type 1 diabetes for 20 years, so she fully understands the challenges of managing diabetes. In a recent interview with Carb DM, Erica spoke about the process for training diabetic alert dogs.
Where did the idea of training shelter dogs as DADs come from?
I know I’m not the first person to think of the idea; but it’s not a common or popular choice. Shelter dogs have an unknown background and behavior history. Often they haven’t been socialized to the human world properly, if at all, and they come with emotional baggage that can be difficult to erase and reverse in order for them to be appropriate service dog candidates. However, among the many, many shelter dogs out there; I know there are some that have what it takes to be a service dog. I’ve always been pro-rescue. I’ve heard so many times that it can’t be done, so it’s worth it to me to show those that are doubtful that shelter dogs are in fact an option if you’re willing to put in the work necessary.
Training shelter dogs, however, does require an advanced knowledge of dog behavior and training techniques. I focus on force-free methods because my primary focus is for the dog to WANT to work, not feel like it has too. If one of the dogs I’m training would rather just be a pet, then I am happy to career change it and adopt it out as a pet. Not everyone is cut out to be a great leader, so I can understand how not every dog has what it takes to deal with the pressure of being a service dog.
Do certain breeds of dogs make better DADs than others?
Honestly, I haven’t really had a chance to find this out for myself yet; so far I’ve only had experience training mainly Labradors and Golden Retrievers. I keep hearing that yes, certain breeds are better “sniffers” than others, but what I’m coming to find out is personality is more important than breed. In my experience so far, dogs that possess qualities like a good work ethic, are highly motivated by food, and that have more persevering and “drive-y” personalities tend to be more accurate at alerting.
The first shelter dog that I trained, Gilligan, is an American Bulldog mix, and since completing his training he’s averaging a 98% accuracy alerting rate. I’m finding that working dog breeds tend to excel at the training process, but it doesn’t mean the other breeds can’t be taught. Every dog is an individual and if you can get them on board for the game of alerting then usually it seems to work out successfully.
Is there an ideal age range for DADs?
Probably not, because for the most part, any dog that can sniff has the potential to learn to be a DAD. However, I can say I do prefer dogs that are younger (up to 2 years old.) Younger dogs have a longer working lifespan for their guardian, and because training a DAD as a service dog takes considerable time, effort, and money, why not train a dog that will give you many years of service as opposed to training a middle-aged dog. By the time the training is complete, the dog would only have a year or two of good working years before needing to be retired.
It’s not an overall difficult process, but it can be pretty time intensive if it’s something you’re not familiar with already. There are different ways to train a DAD, but the overall idea is to associate the biochemical smell the T1D emits when their blood sugar is out of range with something that the dog really likes.
In almost all cases, food is the best motivator. The dog learns that it receives a food reward when that smell is present. Scent samples of T1Ds experiencing an out of range blood sugar are collected and used in conjunction with a clicker and food rewards in the very beginning to teach the dog to pinpoint that particular smell in the future. For the most part it’s lots of repetition before the dog starts to make the connection between that particular smell and the treat. My training methods can be a little different and unconventional at times because I’m a T1D myself and physically can’t train a dog the same way that a non-T1D trainer would train.
How long does it take to train a DAD?
Each dog is an individual and each family has certain specifics that they’d like; so training time will vary. If the family is only wanting to train the DAD portion, than the time frame can be anywhere from 2-6 months. If I am training a full access DAD, then the time frame can easily stretch from 6 months to 1 year or more, depending on what specific tasks are needing to be trained. So far, I’m averaging about 3-4 months of training with the dog before they are alerting with a good accuracy in their guardian’s home. During those months of training, because I’m pulling shelter dogs primarily as candidates, means that I’m training from scratch such as potty training, and basic house manners. It can be pretty intensive but it’s super rewarding in the end!
How many dogs can you train at a time?
Although I can have several DADs in training in my home at the same time, I typically don’t like to stretch myself that thin. I want to make sure my clients are getting their money’s worth, and the more dogs I have on my training string, the easier it is for me to miss reward-able behaviors and lose training opportunities which can be hard to get back. When The Doggie Day Inn is busy, I prefer to only have 1-2 in my home training at a time. That way, I have enough focus for both, and I can ensure that I am training each dog efficiently and effectively with the time I have. During the slow times, and we don’t have many client dogs boarding with us, I can have up to 5 DAD’s in training in my home at any given time.
You train existing family dogs to be diabetic alert dogs. How involved is the family in training a DAD?
Because I am a T1D, my training is unique. During the very first stages of training where the dog is learning about the scent and what to do about it, the family does not need to be involved at all. I actually recommend that the dog board with me in my home for several weeks so that training is more effective. I occasionally ask clients for scent samples for their dog’s training, but for the most part, I can use my own samples for the initial training. Once the dog is fairly reliably alerting to my own out of range glucose numbers then I will transfer them back over to their guardian’s home. From that point on, it’s crucial that the family is invested and dedicated to making the process work. They need to be 100% on board in order to give the dog the best chance of success.
What do you look for in a family when deciding to accept them as clients?
Mainly, the family/client needs to be committed and willing to put in some work in order for their DAD to be reliable. I also look for a family that is supportive of each other, and one that makes a conscious effort to do their best to be consistent in their handling of the dog in order for the DAD to do its best work. It’s also incredibly important that the T1D in the family has a good understanding of how it affects them personally, and an intimate knowledge of their particular diabetic trends. Once my non-profit is up and running it will really be about what dog’s personality matches with what family. Finding just the right personality match is crucial in building a lasting working relationship between dog and person.
Is there a minimum age for a child to have a DAD?
Not really; it all depends on the situation. If the T1D is younger, than the parents will need to be more involved with handling of the dog and take care of the everyday tasks related to having a DAD. If the T1D is an adult, then they will be able to care for the dog on their own. The bottom line is different situations will call for different accommodations and it may take some time to come up with the perfect formula in order to make it work for everyone.
How do you determine when a dog is ready?
This is another one of those questions where it really depends on the dog. Generally, though, once they are fairly accurately alerting to my own out of range BG’s in my home, then I know they are most likely ready to transition to their new handler.
What is the difference between an at-home DAD and a full-service DAD?
I do train both; the main difference is the time it takes to train as well as the behavior manners in public the dog will have. An at-home DAD primarily works in the home, and does not have public access where as a full-service DAD or more commonly known as public/full access service dog is allowed to go with their handler anywhere; including places that pet dogs aren’t normally allowed to visit. It is actually harder and it takes more time to train a dog to have appropriate behavior in public places than it does to train them to alert to a T1D’s blood sugars.
The few shelter dogs that I have trained to be DAD’s have been at-home companions because they have a behavior or two that limits their public work. The great thing about this is that the dog can still work at home, even if it has quirks like barking at other dogs, or pulling on leash.
The most popular request I get from the public is for an in-home DAD. There are many families and/or T1D individuals who do not want the responsibility of a full access service dog but would like to have a companion in the home who is trained to alert to their out of range BG’s. This is my favorite type of DAD to train because I can save a dog from a shelter that would have had limited options, give it some TLC and training then place it with a family who cherishes it for who it is and appreciates it’s advanced alerting ability. It’s a win for everyone!