Monthly Archives: May 2013

A New Development

Anna Oblasser-Mirtl

One of the best aspects to my experience at the Wildrose DAD conference last month was the chance to meet and talk with many DAD teams and trainers. One of the people I met there was Anna Oblasser-Mirtl. Anna founded the Animal Training Center in Austria where she trains many different kinds of animals and trainers of animals. A few years ago Anna started training and placing DADs with diabetic clients in her home country.

 

While at the conference Anna and I talked about what she did as I was curious about all the trainers and their ways of training their dogs. She told me that she had recently placed a fully trained DAD with a client who returned the dog after only a week due to the clients unexpected medical issues. She commented on how hard it was to see a placement not stick. Later on, when I decided that Mya was not going to suit my needs, I reached out to Anna to see if this dog was still unplaced and at her center. Several weeks and dozens of emails later I’m happy to report that, if all goes according to plan, this dog, Luka, will be emigrating to the US and joining my three-ring family circus.

Luka means “light” in German

Luka is a 1.5-2 year old black Labrador cross that was rescued by an animal protection organization in Croatia. Anna has assessed about one thousand rescue dogs over the past year and Luka is one of only two that met her high standards. His unique character, intelligence, and temperament brought him to Anna’s attention and she deemed him a good candidate for DAD training.

Luka is considered an adult dog and has considerably more training than Mya, especially in public access. Public access training is a long process that involves exposing the dog to many different kinds of real-world situations including stores, restaurants, and various modes of public transportation. He is well prepared to accompany me in my busy life.

Graz, Austria

In the last week of June, Cathy, my wife, and I will travel to Austria where we will stay for 10 days. We will have a free day before all the training starts to get our bearings and recover from jet lag and will have our evenings together to explore. Cathy will not need to attend all the training so she will have some days to explore the nearby classical European city, Graz, which is the second largest city in Austria. During our time in Austria we will take part in a two day “chicken camp” – an exciting and unique experience that I’ll describe in a future blog post. We’ll spend five days with Anna’s partner at the center, Barbara, learning how to handle Luka and maintain his training. We’ve had less than a dozen nights away from our children over as many years so this respite at a Bed and Breakfast in a foreign country is a welcome chance to prepare ourselves for the change in life that Luka will undoubtedly bring.

When training is complete Luka will accompany us on our flight back to the US. Service dogs are allowed to accompany their handlers on flights at no cost and he will lie at our feet. Luka has never traveled on an airplane before and the 9 hour flight is a long time for him to go without a chance to relieve himself but we are hopeful it will go smoothly. Either way it will be quite an adventure!

Once back in the states, Anna has made it clear that she is available to help Luka and I work though any issues we have via video conferencing, working with a dog trainer she knows and trusts who lives about 2.5 hours away or her coming to the USA to work out whatever kinks we might have. As this unfolds I also want to state that both Anna and I have mutually agreed that either she or I can call things off if Luka doesn’t seem like a good fit while we are in Austria. We have each spent a lot of time vetting each other to avoid that possibility but we have to go into this open to the chance, however unlikely, that it might not work out. And if for any reason we came to that conclusion once Luka is in the USA, Luka would then go back to Anna, not to another dog owner here or a shelter.

Needless to say our family is very excited about this sudden change of events. We have a long list of details that need to get sorted out before our epic journey overseas but we feel invigorated and thrilled to be starting off on this great adventure. Stay tuned!

A Turn in the Road

I know my blog posts have been few and far between lately. The situation with Mya has been tumultuous and therefore difficult to document. As I explained in an earlier post, several months ago Mya started showing signs of uncertainty in certain public access situations. This period has been an emotional roller coaster for me as Scott and I have seen signs of both progress and regress in Mya’s confidence.

This past weekend my wife and I packed our kids into our minivan, hitched up the camper, and started what would turn out to be a 14 hour drive(!) from New England to Williamsburg, Virginia.

Uxbridge Grenadiers Fyfe & Drum Corps

Uxbridge Grenadiers Fife & Drum Corps

My eldest sons take part in a Fife and Drum muster there every spring and we decided to make it into a family event. I planned to spend several hours each day while down there with Scott and Mya getting trained on how to handle her and continue her training after placement because, as Scott says, “the training never ends”.

Scott and I spent Saturday together going over some training groundwork and then we went to the boardwalk at Virginia Beach to practice loose-lead walking. Scott had some great pointers and I felt like Mya and I had made progress by the end of the walk. During this time, I also had a chance to handle Scott’s dog, Ava, who is very well trained and is a joy to walk with.

On the drive back from the beach Scott and I had a heart to heart about Mya. The conclusion of the conversation was that we think Mya is not the right dog for me. I need a dog who will be ready to accompany me to work and out in public immediately after placement. I need a dog who will be confident and bold, willing to walk into novel and uncertain situations with little or no hesitation. Mya is definitely not that dog today and there is some question as to whether she will ever be that dog. She tends to be a cautious, thoughtful dog – a quality that definitely has benefits and will serve some other lucky diabetic well.

Scott has been characteristically gracious and understanding. He strongly agrees that the dog and handler have to be a good match in many dimensions. I think that is what was so hard about coming to this decision – Mya and I *are* a good match in many dimensions but unfortunately not in the most important one: lifestyle. Mya is able to stay focused and not easily distracted or excitable by children, other dogs, rolling balls, etc.  And she demonstrated that she was able to alert to my low blood sugar while at Wildwood. Sadly, however, she is not right for the busy out-and-about life that I lead.

I had 12 hours of driving back home spread over two days to let my feelings settle over this (exactly how much settling can occur when sitting with four children in a car for two days is still unclear). There is sadness – I had a lot emotionally invested in Mya. There is also a strong sense of relief. Each time I saw Mya exhibit her fear response both while at the Wildwood conference and in Virginia I felt a tightening inside – each episode deepening my concern about her viability for public access work. The day after Scott and I spoke, I felt my insides gradually start to unwind as I realized I had made the right choice.

So where do I go from here? I’ve reached out to some other trainers I’ve met along the way and filled them in on my story. I have a few possible leads that might connect me with a trained dog sooner rather than later but there is still a lot of discovery for me to do. Fortunately I’m not starting from scratch. My experience with Scott and Mya was an invaluable education and I feel vastly more qualified to assess both trainer and dog than I did before. And although the outcome of  my experience with Mya was not what I had hoped for, I have no regrets whatsoever.

Hopefully I’ll have something new to report in the coming weeks about where my journey will lead me. Stay tuned!

Frank’s Story

Frank Wisneski told his inspiring DAD story at Wildrose during the conference kickoff. It was a brutally authentic portrayal of life with a DAD and, coming so early in the conference, helped frame the entire weekend for me. He posted a transcription at his excellent blog which I highly recommend:

http://blackdogsrule.com/my-talk-at-the-wildrose-dad-conference/

He also took many excellent photographs from the conference and managed to catch this one of me and Mya.

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First Alerts

Describe what you see when you look into a kaleidoscope. Twist the end. Describe how the sparkling colors change, patterns emerge and evolve, and symmetry shifts. That’s the task before me as I try to describe my first Wildrose DAD conference.

Several years ago Rachel Thornton, a mom from Mississippi, came up with the idea of training a dog to help her daughter, Abi, manage her newly diagnosed diabetes. She painstakingly laid the groundwork for the rest of us to follow and she leads us still at her invaluable forum DiabeticAlertDog.com. In 2009 she started what has become a yearly tradition: the Wildrose Diabetic Alert Dog Conference, hosted by Wildrose Kennels in Mississippi with whom Rachel works closely. Each conference brings together existing DAD teams, trainers, teams in training, and people looking to find out more about DADs.

For me, it was two days filled with inspiration, disappointment, deeply moving stories, self-doubt, and thrilled exuberance. That’s a lot of emotion packed into 48 hours. My task over the coming days is to unpack and assimilate the experience into a new understanding of this journey I’m on and, hopefully, find a way to express it in this crude instrument called language. This will take some time.

The first story I want to tell is, perhaps, the most important experience I’ve yet had on this journey and definitely the most valuable.

It was early Friday morning. Everyone was sitting in chairs in the meeting center listening to Rachel inspire us with the heart-wrenching tale of her daughter’s diagnosis and early struggles with type 1 diabetes. Brenda, who I interviewed on the blog a few months ago, was sitting about ten feet away. Her diabetic daughter Laura was outside somewhere – out of sight and with all the doors closed. Their DAD, Daisy, lay asleep by Brenda’s feet. (Children with DADs often take breaks from each other and the parents take control of the dog.) Suddenly Daisy stood up, sniffed aggressively at the air and gently placed her paw on Brenda’s leg. Brenda looked down and asks, “Are you sure?” and Daisy repeats the movement. Seconds later, Laura coincidentally entered the room from outside and makes her way to her mother’s side. When she reached Brenda, her mom tells her to check her blood which she does.

You can guess what happened next – a big dog party! Lots of treats for Daisy, lots of praise and petting and Daisy is allowed to hold her beloved tennis ball for a while before settling down.

 

I don’t think I can describe all the emotions I felt. It was an extremely powerful moment and I felt privileged to be able to watch it unfold. I’m not afraid to say I got choked up and even now as I write this on the plane back to Boston I’ve got a sniffle just thinking about it. Prior to this I understood this amazing thing that DADs can do but it was an intellectual understanding – I hadn’t internalized what it meant to people’s lives. I’ll admit my emotional pump was primed that morning when I entered the building and saw an adorable little boy wearing a Superman cape. He couldn’t have been more than three. I said, “Hey Superman,” and as he turned I saw a pump identical to mine attached to his belt, looking absurdly large on his tiny body. The unfairness and cruelty of this disease hit me like a brick, with a deep sympathy for what these parents must experience on a daily basis.

Fast forward to Saturday afternoon. I was in a different meeting room with chairs spread around. Scott and three other trainers were observing Mya to see if they could figure out the source of her anxiety and come up with a plan to help her through it. This particular room was a scary place for her. We can never know what terror she was envisioning in her head but she was obviously distraught which is why we chose that room to observe her – something about the wood floor was not to her liking. Suddenly she started sniffing – no, snorting – very aggressively and walked over to Scott, smelling him all over. Mya then grabbed at the bringsel Scott always has hanging from his belt and tugged until he unclipped it and let her have it. She walked directly to the chair where I was sitting, thrust her head between my knees and dropped the bringsel into my lap, then sat at my feet with her entire rear-end wagging and a look of absolute satisfaction on her face, as if she was saying, “Look what I just did!”

My instinctual reaction was doubt. Over the years I’ve evolved something I can best describe as a subconscious risk meter that is always running in my head. It measures the degree of confidence I have that I know my current level of blood glucose. When I check my blood or eat a meal the risk meter is reset to zero. As time passes the risk meter goes up at a rate that varies with the kind and quality of food I have eaten and my level of physical exertion. This has served me pretty well and is a constantly evolving model. At that moment I felt confident that I was normal or high – it was only two hours since lunch for which I hadn’t needed much insulin and I had recently had a snack. I had checked my glucose only thirty minutes prior and was at a pleasant 98 – right in the middle of my target range of 85-120.

I stood up and checked my Dexcom CGMS and it said I was steady at 80 and had been steady all afternoon – no drama whatsoever. But if I trusted my Dexcom completely I wouldn’t be here – my internal system for recognizing highs and lows is dangerously imperfect and the Dexcom, while useful, has not protected me from some terrifying highs and lows. I pulled my glucometer from my backpack, pricked my finger, and applied a drop of blood. It read 57. I had just experienced my first DAD alert.

I was grateful for the need to praise and reward Mya because it made me focus outside of myself. But inside I felt like a ship tossed in a storm. I so often tell myself that I am in excellent control of my diabetes, and maybe I don’t really need a DAD – maybe I’m pursuing this for the wrong reasons. All doubt evaporated at that moment even as tears came to my eyes. The truth is that my grip on glycemic control is tenuous and hair thin. I work really hard at it – to the point of obsession. I get the best tools, I constantly refine my risk model, I eat very carefully. I was so sure I wasn’t low and I was prepared to tell everyone that this was a false alarm. I hadn’t even considered the possibility that I might be low – certainly not THAT low.

Hello. My name is Dave, and I can’t always control my diabetes.

The Dexcom never even alerted. The alarm is set to go off at 75. If I set it any higher I get so many false alarms that I start to ignore it. I chewed some glucose tablets and ate some gorp that I always keep handy and my glucose quickly recovered. The graph on the Dexcom showed not even a blip – it was a perfectly straight line like nothing had happened at all. The fact that in just 30 minutes I had dropped from 98 to 57 tells me that, had Mya not alerted, I would probably be in the 40s before the CGMS caught wind of the low and finally alerted me. What if I was in the middle of the woods, alone on a long hike? It could happen. It *has* happened.

 

This is the first gift bestowed upon me by the 2013 Wildrose DAD conference: resolve. I resolve that next year I will return to Wildwood with my own DAD where, for two days, my journey will merge with the journey of others like me and I will return home fulfilled and inspired.

There are so many more stories to tell from the weekend: meeting and spending time with Mya, getting a chance to meet and talk with DAD teams I only knew through Facebook, working with Scott and other trainers to understand Mya’s anxiety. There is much to tell – stay tuned!