Thursday, April 12, 2007
I got a recent email from someone interested in knowing more about Dixie and her training. I'm posting my response here so that others who might have the same questions can see my answers.
What trained skills does your dog perform for you?
Dixie is a trained emergency medical response dog. (EMRD) As I’ve written before, she alerts me when my blood sugar is high, low, or dropping. She knows how to push a switch to activate Life Alert if I’m not responsive. She knows basic obedience skills—sit, stay, lay down, heel, come. I trained her to push “handicap buttons” at public buildings to open doors. She is trained to put her “paws up” which was initially used to teach her to use her front paws to alert me.
If I go to an alert dog school, what can I expect? What will happen there?
I can only speak as to what training was like at Great Plains Assistance Dog Foundation, as that’s the only place I’ve trained. I spent three weeks at their center in Jud, North Dakota. They have two, on site apartments. (really two separate little houses) The apartment that I stayed in had a furnished kitchen including stove, fridge, oven, pots, pans, silverware, etc. It had one bedroom that had two twin beds in it. There was a large bathroom (handicapped accessible) with a shower. (no tub) I trained with the trainers and Dixie Monday thru Friday. Thursday was community access day. We went to Jamestown, ND to practice public access at stores, restaurants, etc. Saturday and Sunday were days for Dixie and I to rest and spend time together as well as to go to Jamestown for shopping. (She stayed in the house with me after the first day when we met) Training included working on the B-5. (basic 5 – sit, stay, down, heel, come) I usually had about an hour to an hour and a half off each afternoon for lunch. It was exhausting. I brought movies, activities to do, books to read…and did none of them. When I wasn’t working with Dixie at the training center, we were working together in the apartment or crashed. The staff there was great. They are a great bunch of hard working folks that want to help you develop the best relationship with your service dog.
Why did you choose alert dogs from other therapies?
I had an untrained mixed breed dog that used to wake me in the morning if I was low. She died and I realized how much I had come to rely on her. I connected with a woman who was “hooked” in to the service dog organization, and she helped me to find Great Plains. I have had hypoglycemia unawareness for many years, and have always had to rely on other people to help me manage or tell me when I was low. CGMS have never really appealed to me because I struggle just having enough viable tissue to use a pump. (I’ve been using a pump since 1992) I was worried that having another sensor would make more of my tissue not viable. Plus, I love dogs. As a special education teacher, I also support animal interactions for students. Dixie has been amazing with my special ed kids. They love her and she loves them.
What advantages do you think that an alert dog has over other therapies (i.e. Continuous glucose monitoring systems)?
I think that for me, it was all about saving my tissue for insulin and not using it for a sensor. And CGMS aren’t furry and nurturing to kids. ☺
What has been the biggest issue with the public and your dog?
I get sick of the questions from the public. Some of the repeated questions are: “Are you almost blind?” “Is that a seeing eye dog?” “Your dog is in training for a blind person, right?”
I can’t go very many places without having questions asked. Most of the time I am happy to share information about Dixie. I do feel a certain amount of responsibility to educate people that there are service dogs doing all sorts of jobs. But it does get old. At school, kids know the rule about not petting Dixie, and are cute about just waving to her the hall. We don’t go down a hall without a bunch of waves, smiles, and “Hi Dixies!” The adults have the most trouble remembering. Parents walk into the building and just start petting her, then realize her vest says “Please don’t pet me, I’m working” and stop.
Why is your alert dog important to you and your lifestyle?
Dixie and I are a team. She has changed the quality of my life. I don’t carry around the guilt I used to have that my friends had to constantly notice if I was low, because I couldn't. One of my colleagues said, shortly after I was back at school with Dixie, that she felt like she didn’t have a job anymore—she was so used to helping me when I was low. I am able to keep my blood sugars in a reasonable range without worrying about running higher to avoid lows.
I'm a dog person.
And she is a really, really good dog.