Thinking of getting a Diabetes Alert Dog? What to look for ?
There are many companies, both for profit and not for profit that train diabetes alert dogs. Most offer high quality service dogs with proven abilities to alert to changes in blood glucose levels. These dogs go through hours of socialization and training to learn how to behave in public settings and handle most situations appropriately. If all goes well, you should have that dog for over 10-12 years. Finding the right diabetes alert dog is worth a little up front investigation to make sure that the dog you receive is going to fit your lifestyle and most importantly do the job. How old should the dog be when you get him/her ? What breed of dog will you be getting? Who will train the dog? How much teaching will you be given before you take the dog home and why is it important? Will you get support in the long run?
Here are a few guidelines to help you chose the right organization to work with:
How old should the dog be when you get him/her?
Buying a dog any younger than a year and a half old is risky.
Puppies are adorable and win our hearts in an instant, but a service dog should never be placed younger than a year and half to two years old. You may be able to start teaching a young puppy to alert to diabetes, that doesn’t make him a service dog. It takes many months to train a dog to perform all the needed behaviors. If the dog isn’t fully trained when placed with a family, it will be very difficult to bring that dog up to the level that it needs to be for service work and public access.
Another problem with buying young puppies is that as dogs grow from puppyhood to adulthood, they go through many developmental periods that will affect their overall behavior. Amongst the most thoughtful, caring and serious service dog organizations, even with the best breeding and the best training in place, 30-40% of the dogs still do not make it as service dogs. Why? During puberty, the dogs may develop problematic behaviors such as dog reactivity (lunging and barking at other dogs), aggression problems, resource guarding or fears. Service dogs need to focus and respond to their handler even when going through a crowd of people or when passing by another dog. They need to be trusted around young children and people of all sorts. If for any reason the dogs develop behaviors that could cause problems out in public, most reputable organizations will pull them out of the program and adopt them out to families as pets.
Buying a service dog as a puppy is taking a big chance. As the dog grows up, all may be fine, but there are many factors that could come in the way of this particular puppy working out in the long run. To this date, there is no reliable test that can give anyone 100% certainty about a dog’s temperament and behavior. With 30-40% of dogs not working out, even in the hands of professional trainers, those numbers can only increase when the puppy is mostly trained by the receiving family. When problems start, it’s too late to back out, the dog is part of the family and sending him back to the organization would be heartbreaking, especially if the dog belongs to a young child.
What breed of dog should you get?
Diabetes alert dogs are mostly Labradors or golden retrievers or mixes of these breeds, but they don’t have to be. If you need a dog for diabetes alert alone, and don’t need any help with mobility, any size dog can do the job. Mixed breeds and dogs from rescues and shelters can be trained just as well as purebred dogs with impressive pedigrees. When taking the dog out in public places however, where people may be afraid of dogs or may simply not like dogs, it’s best if the dog’s features are associated with a friendly personality. A dog with physical features typically associated with aggressive traits can be problematic. Walking through a mall or supermarket with a dog draws a lot of attention in itself, and the friendlier the dog looks, the easier it is.
Overall, regardless of origin or breed, the dogs need to be extremely sociable with people and other dogs, highly trainable, very focused on their person (I particularly like clingy dogs, or ‘velcro dogs’ when it comes to diabetes alert or seizure dogs), and have friendly looks.
Who will train the dog?
Service dog trainers have acquired years of experience and knowledge to be able to train dogs to the highest level of reliability. In addition, for a service dog to learn all the required skills for the job, it takes months, and sometimes up to two years of full time training, to be ready for placement. Training dogs for diabetes alert, where a life depends on the ability of the dog to perform, demands a very high level of training with specialized skills from the trainer.
Stay away from organizations that charge full price, yet place puppies or young dogs that you will have to train.
How much teaching will you be given before you take the dog home?
Before taking a dog home, it’s very important to make sure that you have all the information and experience to handle most situations. What do you do if the dog doesn’t respond? What do you do if the dog is anxious or afraid of something? What do you do if the dog starts alerting when your glucose levels are within normal range? How do you introduce the dog to other dogs? The best trained dog can act as a typical misbehaving pet, when in the hands of an inexperienced handler. Without having been taught about dog behavior and training, working with that service dog may turn out to be more challenging than helpful.
Getting a diabetes alert dog or any service dog, is not like buying a pet, you can’t just take it home straight from the breeder. Most organizations won’t place a dog without first teaching the family how to work with the dog, and with reason. Families undergo several days to a couple of weeks of supervised dog handling experience. Making sure that there is a teaching curriculum in place for you is absolutely critical if you want the dog to perform.
Will you get support in the long run?
Life is an ever-changing experience. The dog gets older, your disability may evolve and your life situation may change. There are many reasons why ongoing support can make a big difference in the long-term partnership between you and your dog. Buying a service dog is different than just buying a puppy from a breeder or adopting a dog from the shelter. The dog is a working animal and sometimes that work needs to be re-evaluated along the road.
Most organizations will offer ongoing support options for the lifetime of the partnership but it’s always better to ask upfront.
In the majority of cases, buying a service dog is a life changing and wonderful experience. Dogs provide much needed autonomy, help, comfort and safety. Most organizations are dedicated to providing excellent working animals and ongoing support for the success of the partnership. Like in any industry however, there are some, who for lack of knowledge, experience or ethics, can take shortcuts with unfortunate consequences for the client. For those reasons, going the extra step by asking a lawyer to oversee the contract is always recommended. Being prepared and knowing what to look for will help you find the right dog for your particular needs.
Whether you chose our organization or not, we’re happy to assist you.
Jennifer Cattet Ph.D. is an author, researcher, dog trainer, consultant, and Executive Director of Medical Mutts, a non-profit organization specialized in the training of medical alert dogs for conditions such as seizures, diabetes, psychiatric disorders, etc.