Training the dogs
Destiny was among the first dogs that D4D trained, so she uses an older, more physical alert style. The dog puts her paws on Harris or jumps on or nudges her when her blood glucose starts to fall.
“Today, we train them to pick up a bringsel, which is like a stuffed toy about 5 inches long. It hangs from the dog’s collar or the person’s belt loop, and the dog is trained to pick that up to get the person’s attention. If it is on the belt loop, the dog will pull and the person will notice. If it is on the collar, the dog will pick it off its collar and then make physical contact. The idea is that the bringsel is a clear alert, so you can’t mistake the signal,” Harris says.
Service dogs tend to be smart, trainable breeds that love to be around people, love to work, and want to please their owners, according to Dr. Dodman. “Service dogs in general are very smart, and they can be trained to focus on the job at hand. They can learn and observe.”
Today, black and yellow Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers are among favorite service breeds, but many organizations still use a fair share of German shepherds and other herding breeds.
D4D does not breed its own dogs. Instead, it takes dogs as donations from other programs that are members of Assistance Dogs International (ADI), a coalition of not-for-profit organizations that train and place assistance dogs; ADI has developed standards and ethics for the training of such dogs. A dog may be donated to D4D when it has the right temperament to be a service dog but cannot serve a particular group or function for some reason. For instance, some dogs have a weak trachea, which makes them cough when they wear a guide dog harness. That would be unacceptable in a guide dog for the blind, but it would not be a problem for a diabetes alert dog, because alert dogs don’t need to wear harnesses.
Certified diabetes alert dogs do, however, wear jackets that show the public they are working dogs. As such, they are permitted by law in places that serve the public, such as restaurants and movie theaters. “I think everyone who has an assistance dog or is a puppy raiser for an assistance program runs into someone who doesn’t understand the law, but that is an opportunity to educate. People in our program carry information so that they can give it to people who don’t know about the dogs,” says Harris, who takes her dog everywhere.
Because there are not enough dogs for everyone with diabetes who wants one, most programs place dogs with people who use insulin, since they are at higher risk of developing severe hypoglycemia. Harris says that D4D gets at least 10 applications for every service dog it trains.
“Our dogs are literally lifesavers [for people who] are insulin dependent,” Harris says.
Diabetes alert dogs are initially trained to behave correctly in public and to cope with noise, traffic, crowds, traveling, etc. According to Sharon Scott, director of training at Paws for Diabetics, Inc., in Australia, “All service dogs can handle the noise and stress of a busy shopping center or workplace. Special training goes into dogs who attend school or an office every day to be quiet, patient, and out of the way of fellow students and work associates. The dog’s temperament, breed, and health are important, so that they are in the best position to cope with the rigors of their job.”
The actual training methods used by various organizations are intellectual property, says Scott, who was reluctant to give particulars, but the training is similar to any sniffer dog training. “Much of the reliability for the dogs to alert comes from the bond that develops between the dog and its handler, as evidenced by pet dogs learning when their owners are not well without any training at all,” she says.
At D4D, dogs come into the program when they are about 18 months old, already knowing how to behave in various public situations and around all types of people. D4D teaches the dog to sniff out low blood glucose. Once the dogs are ready, their new owners with diabetes receive two weeks of training with the dogs. “It is a fairly intensive training class,” says Harris. “We work with people who have all types of experience with dogs, from none to a lot. You have to learn to think like a dog.”