Thursday, October 7, 2010

Two of the Most Important Firsts in my Assistance Dog Journey to Date

I've decided to participate in an Assistance Dog Blog Carnival developed by Sharon Wachsler at her blog, After Gadget (, with this post being my first entry.
According to Wikipedia, "... a blog carnival is similar to a magazine, in that it it is dedicated to a particular topic, and is published on a regular schedule ..."
According to Sharon, the plan for the Assistance Dog Blog Carnival is to hold it quarterly, guest hosted by a different AD-related blog each time with After Gadget the official home/principle organizer. There are hosts arranged for the next three carnival editions but I have volunteered From Puppy to Public Access for some time after that. 
Anyway, the theme for this first carnival is "The First" and what jumped out at me were two of the most important firsts that have occurred in my assistance dog journey so far - the first time I realized that Laurel was alerting me to a medical condition (when she was about 6 months old) and the first time Hardy alerted me on his own (when he was about 3 1/2 months old). 
I have written about these firsts in this blog before and I talk about them all the time. In fact, Laurel and I are part of an article in a local magazine in which I talk about how much her alerting has changed my life. 
After being on the waiting list for a national service dog program for about 12 years, out of desperation, my husband and I decided to try raising and training my own service dog. Since I use a power chair and have difficulty picking things up and making various body parts work, I planned to train the typical mobility-related tasks. The only types of alert dogs I knew about were for epilepsy and diabetes. July 28th, 2006, we brought home an 8 week old female, yellow English Lab from a very small breeder in Delaware-on-Shawnee, PA, who has since retired. From the very beginning, it was obvious that Laurel was a very intelligent, talented, energetic, enthusiastic (read challenging) service dog prospect who didn't have tons of natural self control. She was our first Lab and we worked on teaching her self control from the start. So, one day when Laurel was about 6 months old, when she threw herself on top of my abdomen and kept me pinned down, I just thought she was being more obnoxious than usual and put her in her crate. Once in there, she started screaming ... making a sound we'd never heard before and haven't heard since. My husband came racing from upstairs and it made quite an impact on us so that when I started having very severe abdominal spasms about 45 minutes later, we wondered aloud whether there was a relationship between Laurel's behavior and my spasms. I noted it in her training journal and did some research, where I was able to find a small amount of information regarding dogs who did alert to people's severe muscle spasms. Also, in thinking back, I realized that there had been two other incidents when Laurel may have tried to alert me to spasms. I have no doubt that if I had continued to ignore or punish Laurel for trying to tell me what was going to happen, she would have stopped. I'm grateful that she was very dramatic and persistent and that I was able to recognize her efforts. She has proven that she not only knows about 45 minutes to an hour before I am going to have spasms but she also knows what muscles will be involved. As anyone who has severe muscle spasms knows, the ability to know and take my pain medications and muscle relaxants before they start is huge - now they tend to last hours instead of days or even weeks! By tracking her alerts and the outcomes, I determined that they were predictive and reliable. And then I trained her to be somewhat more subtle about it. If she can reach the body part that is going to spasm, she can nudge it and if not, she nudges my hand. Laurel also developed alerts for rheumatoid in my chest wall (which feels like a heart attack) and knew last summer, before I or my doctors did, that I had developed steroid-induced diabetes. Although Laurel is only 4, because she wakes me at night, interrupts whatever she is doing during the day to alert and generally keeps track of how I'm doing; that, combined with her other tasks, time for training and time to just be a dog keep her very busy. 
Seeing how hard Laurel works and how responsible she feels along with the belief that the best chance for my next service dog to do the alerts is to learn from Laurel  encouraged me to consider getting my next service dog prospect sooner rather than later. 
At the beginning of June, my service dog trainer, Sue Alexander, temperament tested some Lab puppies for me and although I was looking for another yellow, I brought home a handsome 8 week old chocolate boy we named Hardy. Coincidentally, this summer I had a flair of the rheumatoid in my chest wall so Laurel was alerting quite a bit. One time when she was alerting, Hardy came running up to play at which point, Laurel made it very clear that she was doing something serious and it wasn't playtime! That really got Hardy's attention and he began carefully watching what she was doing; by the time he was about 3 months old, he started mimicking her alerts. Then one morning, Laurel alerted while Hardy was outside in the yard and when he came back in, he asked to come up on the bed with me and immediately alerted on his own. The next day, he actually alerted before Laurel did so I had some confidence it hadn't just been a fluke before. Although the flair stopped (for which I'm grateful), Hardy has alerted appropriately several other times and just recently joined Laurel in alerting for muscle spasms. Obviously, we've also worked very hard on socialization and basic obedience and he demonstrates a lovely temperament that should allow him to become a public access service dog. There isn't much known about dogs that alert to less common medical problems so I am very grateful: that Laurel not only knows something is going to happen but chooses to share that with me; for the first time I realized what she was doing and that she is teaching Hardy the same skills.


  1. Just hoppin' through the carnival. You mention Sue Alexander. Well hello neighbour...ish. I believe we're in the same city. Good luck with Laurel and Hardy.

  2. Wow! That is absolutely incredible!!! All these carnival posts are just so fascinating! Thanks for participating; I just love this!

  3. First of all, wow, I can't believe you waited over 12 years to be matched with a service dog from a program! That's ridiculous! And I thought waiting for over a year for my latest guide dog (a male chocolate Lab) was bad. Kudos to you for training Laurel and Hardy (cute names ;-)) yourself too. I really admire those who have the time, patience and capability to do it. Medical alert dogs are fascinating. I'm very glad you have been able to find two pups who are so in-tune with you to do the job.

    P.S. The Word Verification thing on your blog is not so user-friendly for some readers. Please read my post about it, and consider removing that feature to make your blog more accessible to everyone. Thanks!

  4. L^2 -
    thanks for letting me know about the word verification thing on my blog. I didn't realize it was required and certainly don't want to stop anyone from being able to interact. That's part of why I created this blog so I have removed it.
    Also, thanks for your comments - it's been about 16 or 17 years now since I first applied to the program for a dog and I just got a letter asking if I was still interested in one!? I would think that waiting over a year for your guide dog would seem like a lifetime too! Laurel and Hardy have certainly changed my life in many ways and their ability to alert is a big part of that!
    Thanks for taking the time and effort to leave a comment!

  5. What a cool post. I have one question though-why do you need two assistance dogs? Sorry.

    I waited 15 months for my current guide!! 12 years? Madness! Xxx.

  6. Hi Torie,
    I wouldn't say that I "need" two service dogs. And, right now, I don't have two - I have my working service dog and I have a service dog in training. It will be somewhere between 2-3 years before my young dog becomes a full working service dog. At that point, my 4 1/2 year old girl, Laurel, will be 6-7 years old. And she has allergies which are pretty well under control right now but if that changes, I will have to retire her. Also, because of the alerting they do, when I had only Laurel,it was a big job for her and I realized she was always on-duty. Besides working all day, she wakes me at night.
    Plus, we don't really know what makes an alert dog and I figured my best bet was to have Laurel teach my next dog. That is happening, by the way.
    My service dog trainer and I believed it might take up to 2 years to find the right puppy and it didn't take nearly that long.
    Anyway, I am hoping that it will work out that Laurel and Hardy work as partners for a period of time and that eventually Hardy will be be my successor service dog. When that happens will, of course, depend on how it continues to go with Laurel.