Many of you have been asking, how did we come to choose Boo as our service dog. It’s a complicated story of how Boo came to us, but once she did, her assessment started immediately and we quickly knew she was the one. “The One” with a couple of wait and see asterisks.
Boo was dumped in a dump and we were alerted to her existence when our favorite squirrel puppy fanboy pinged us thinking the lost dog was one of our recently adopted puppies. She sure looked like them, but she was not a squirrel puppy. Just as we were thinking about getting her into the SPCA of Texas’ adoption program, a dear mutual friend saw the post and she got the pup into the program. Turned out Boo was chipped, but her chip was not registered. We had regretted not holding back one of the squirrel puppies for our service dog project, but at the time we were not quite ready to commit to beginning the training process. The last few pieces fell into place after the squirrel puppies were all gone, and suddenly here was Boo.
Boo was a mini squirrel puppy doppelganger, so we offered to foster her during the ten-day hold period. We knew we wanted to assess her and we asked the shelter to allow us to foster her until we was sure she was the one. They graciously agreed and our assessment journey began.
The experts say that the time and energy you put into picking your service dog is the most important thing you can do to ensure the success of your Diabetic Alert Dog (DAD). We’d like to tell you we found Boo after months of searching, but we have to admit, we didn’t audition too many dogs. She was the first. Boo checked a lot of the boxes on our list of qualities we wanted to see in a service dog, and to be completely transparency, we don’t know what we’re doing; or do we?
This pick was an educated guess paired with a curated knowledge of dog behavior. We’ll have to look back in a couple of years and let you know if our first pick was a good one. If Boo flunks out of school, someone will get a very lovable, highly trained dog. Boo wins either way. Here’s what we were looking for in our candidates:
From Training Your Diabetic Alert Dog, “Your service dog must be calm, quiet, unobtrusive and able to focus and work comfortably in all public settings. This can require a great deal of confidence and self-control from even the most well-trained dogs.”
Our DAD dog has to remain behaved and focused as it accompanies its owner on all his daily tasks and activities including: going to work, to the gym, to the grocery store, to hockey games, on dates, you name it.
We were looking for a dog that was friendly, non-aggressive, active, healthy, and play driven. We wanted a dog with a positive attitude and an ability to solve problems. Not a Tasha level problem solver (she opened and raided the fridge), but one who can stay focused and work out a problem.
Here’s a high level view of what we were looking for:
Scent: This dog needs to love the sniffy sniffing. Does she see the world thought her nose? Can she find something with her nose?
Ability to turn it on | Ability to turn it off: We wanted a dog that had enough drive and energy to work 24/7 for their diabetic, but not an out of control spaz. We looked to see if we could amp her up and them calm her down quickly, almost like a switch. We needed a smart dog with enough persistence to stay at a task until she got it. Alerting a diabetic when they are low and slightly incoherent will take tenacity and drive.
Social: No scardy feral hyper aware and nervous rehabs here, we needed a fully social dog that enjoys humans, being touched, and new situations with unfamiliar settings and people.
Confidence: We were looking for a relaxed, polite, and confident dog in everyday environments. She needed a curiosity for new sounds, objects, people, and animals.
Focused: This goes back to her ability to turn it on. We needed a focused dog able to concentrate on the handler and the job (scent detection), all while in new distracting environments.
Resilient: We needed a dog that was going to bounce back and recover quickly if surprised or scared by new objects or environments. This is where confidence plays a part as well as a trusting relationship with the handler.
Red Flags: Too much energy, too much fear, and health issues are all red flags. Boo was dumped at a dump. She has some flighty fear issues, but after training and assessing a gazillion feral fearful dogs, we decided that it wasn’t enough for us to disqualify her. She had two other red flags when she first showed up. The first was tinkling when she was excited. We hoped she would grow out of that, and she has. The other flag was car sickness. We’re still waiting to see how that one pans out, but it’s looking better already.
Breed: Breed is everything and nothing. Individual temperament is more important that breed tendencies, but starting from a working dog breed with hundreds of years of cooperative working relationships with humans, well, that’s a strong plus. Make sure you pick a dog breed with an innate will to work cooperatively with their human. That last line is why training groups have their own Labrador retriever breeding programs – they work.
Our pick, well, she is an Oak Cliff Special. A mutty mc mutt mutt. We don’t know what she is, but we saw herding and prey drive tendencies that we liked at first glance. That’s the focus and energy we need to keep her working for a living. If we don’t manage it and focus her drive, it could turn and be a negative, but we’re watching and training towards the plus side.
History: Dogs have critical socialization periods when they are puppies. This period can make or break many a dog. Knowing the dog’s history and socialization history becomes very important when assessing a dog’s ability to process all the stimuli, information, and varied environments required to pass a public access exam. We don’t know much about Boo’s past except that she was dumped at a dump (kind of redundant) at approximately four months old, which is past that critical socialization period. We know she has some fear issues with traffic, loud sounds, & big trash trucks sized vehicles. Can we get her past these fears? It’s a gamble we were willing to take.
Size: There are pros and cons for larger vs. smaller dogs. Small dogs are easier to travel with and to tuck under tight spaces, but they can easily be overlooked in crowded spaces causing people to run into them or step on them. This can frighten and overwhelm the dogs. Also, the size of the dog can affect the likelihood of the public to respect service dog etiquette and leave the dog alone.
Large dogs are easily spotted in crowds, but harder to accommodate when traveling. They command more space and respect due to their size. Larger lab sized dogs are commonly used for DADs.
We were advised to avoid giant breeds with very short working lives and short nosed dogs who would not be suitable for scent work. Made sense to us, plus, not a fan of snorty pugs, bulldogs, or frenchies. Can you imagine flying with your Great Dane in the plane cabin? No. Just no.
Most importantly, we wanted to make sure that our DAD would fit into our diabetic’s lifestyle so that he could live and work with the dog easily, which in turn would encourage him to take the dog everywhere and increase the likelihood of the dog helping prevent a life threatening diabetic moment.
Intuition more than common best practices led our size decision, but there are plenty of successful Chihuahua sized DADs out there that started as family pets and they widen the success spectrum for us. Boo’s diabetic owner travels a lot so we chose to go on the smaller side. Boo was probably going to be a little smaller than we preferred, but her other check boxes made us lean in.
Age: If you pick an older dog there are a few things to consider. First, training takes a year to two years. To get the most out of your DAD, starting earlier leverages a long-term return on investment.
Also, starting with an older dog, the dog may have missed the critical socialization period that happens as a puppy. Regardless, an older dog with solid socialization skills and a great temperament shouldn’t be discounted – that’s a known known. There is value in that as well.
A puppy offers the opportunity to make sure the dog is properly socialized during the critical early months. The owners or trainer can have control over exposing and training the dog for all environments and stimuli. This is why most groups start from a puppy that has come from partner breeding program.
How did Boo Boo score on the age continuum? At four months old, we knew we had missed the critical socialization period with Boo Boo, and she had some flighty fear reactivity in certain situations, but she seemed elastic and confident enough to conquer the issues with some conditioning and training. Since we knew we would not be purchasing a dog from a breeder, we took a leap and went with our intuition.
Gender: Gender doesn’t matter to the success of the DAD. We’re not fans of male dogs lifting their legs on plants, outdoor furniture etc, so it was always going to be a girl dog for us.
Health: Training a service dog takes years of training, therefore a good service dog candidate should pass a battery of tests to ensure that the dog can perform its service for a long, long life. Some best practices look like:
- Check genetics for hip and eyes issues.
- General blood work etc.
Since the diabetic end user was not going to have to pay $25k, or anything, for the dog, we threw caution to the wind and took a simple standard vet exam as our green light.
Now you know our decision making process. Hmmm. Seems like we gave several boarder line issues the green light based on our intuition. Yikes.
On August 17th, 2018, we made it official and adopted Boo Boo. We’ll see how it pans out. Follow Boo Boo’s journey and see how her story progresses:
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Thinking about picking out a service dog for yourself?
Want more information?
- The Ping Project – How We Trained a Diabetic Alert Dog at Home
- Training Your Diabetic Alert Dog
- Dog A Diabetic’s Best Friend Training Guide
- Suzanne Clothier’s Animal Response Assessment Tool (CARAT)
- ADI’s Public Access Test
- ADI Minimum Standards for Assistance Dogs in Public
- Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ)