Monthly Archives: July 2013

Alert! Alert! Alert

I hadn’t planned on blogging today, or at least not about this. But three of Luka’s alerts in the past 18 hours were just so inspiring I had to share them.

Background: Since getting Luka, his alerting has been less than reliable. This is a common condition when DADs get placed. Luka was missing some lows and false alerting a lot. He got the perfectly reasonable idea in his head that when he alerts he gets to play, in addition to getting a tasty treat. Combine that with what I can only conclude was a bad batch of test strips that gave wildly inaccurate results and I completely scrambled his alert behavior. Barbara and Anna (Luka’s trainers in Austria) have been giving me invaluable guidance during these last three weeks and I’ve been gradually increasing his alerting accuracy. Over the past several days it has really improved as evidenced by the latest three entries in my alert log:

Thursday 7/24 9:30pm
On our nightly walk before bed. I expected I was high because I was low 1.5 hours earlier and took a good dose of ice cream and walnuts (of course) without bolus. In the middle of the walk Luka sat down in the road right in front of me and sat facing me. It was really weird – I thought maybe the sound of the leash clicking against the clasp on his new harness sounded like a click and he was now expecting a reward because that is how he sometimes sits when he is awaiting a reward. I released him and walked on, he came right back and jumped with both paws on my chest – really agressively. I didn’t have the bringsel on because I had changed into sleepwear, nor did I have my usual kit containing a glucometer and level 1 treats (that was stupid). His behavior was so out of the ordinary I decided to give him a good handful of kibble and head straight home to check for sure. My BG was 74 and Luka got a tasty treat of pieces of hot dog and cheddar cheese.

Friday 7/25 11:00am
I went into a meeting and checked my bg: 105. The meeting lasted about an hour and a half before lunch and I figured I was pretty stable since I was just sitting still and the meeting should have caused my metabolism to go into sleep mode along with the rest of me. Luka broke his down-stay after about an hour (which he has a bad habit of doing lately) and sat quietly next to me and just *stared* at me. It wasn’t the excited/jumping alert behavior I was used to and it really struck me as odd. I was about to correct him and put him back in a down-stay when I decided I should make sure. The verdict? 76. Glad I checked!

Friday 7/25 1:30pm
After the meeting I ate a quick lunch and took Luka for a well deserved long walk around the office park where I work. As usual we practiced recalls, remote downs, down with distractions (SQUIRREL!) and he was doing great so when we came to a big open field I put on the 10 meter leash and played chase and “find the treat.” We had a good romp and he got a blissful roll in the grass. As we got back to work and entered the building, Luka alerted in his usual way – jumping and looking for the bringsel – just as the elevator came. Again I thought “there’s no way I’m low – I just ate a half hour ago”, but sure enough: 56.

For my readers who have DADs these probably don’t seem all that remarkable. And, yes, this is exactly why I wanted a DAD so why should I find these so extraordinary?

Prior to this Luka had definitely caught me by surprise with some alerts – times when he alerted and I didn’t think I was low. But between those times were many cases of false alerts or times when I figured out I was low and I had to alert *him* because he didn’t catch them. These three alerts in such close succession gave me a glympse of what the future holds as Luka’s alerting reliability rapidly improves. A little over a year ago I tried to envision what it must be like to have a DAD – a fulltime companion who can help carry some of the load imposed by diabetes. I think for the first time today I realized that it is no longer a vision and I am truly humbled.

Luka enjoying a well-deserved rest next to my desk at work.


Self Interview

It has been a little over two weeks since I first met Luka and one week since coming home to the US. The days have been full of many firsts and memorable experiences. I’ve decided to document my experience as a self-interview.

Dave: How is everything going?
Dave: Really well. Every day gets a little easier as we find our routine but everything has been great. Luka fits wonderfully into my life and I already feel like he is an old friend I’ve known for years.

Dave: How was Austria?
Dave: Spectacular! Visiting a foreign country always expands your worldview and this trip was no different. It is a beautiful country in many dimensions and Cathy and I have many fond memories of our time there. Anna and her husband, and Barbara our trainer really went out of their way to make us feel like family and we are deeply grateful for their kindness and hospitality.

Dave & Luka in Austria

Dave: How did you get by not knowing any German?
Dave: Funny you (I) should ask. We got to the Bed and Breakfast where we had arranged to stay and found they spoke very little English. I managed to convey that we had a reservation and they said that they had no record of it. Cathy and I were exhausted after a red-eye flight and in bad need of a shower and a nap. I found the reservation confirmation on my iPhone and showed it to them. The husband and wife proprietor argued a bit in German and apologized and were obviously trying to figure out where they would put us. I’m not sure exactly what happened next – either I randomly said something in Spanish or the hostess did because we both looked at each other with surprise and said, “┬┐Habla Espanol?” It was really a comedic moment as we proceeded to converse freely in Spanish. Cathy’s and my high-school Spanish held up remarkably well and we enjoyed conversing with her every day in a mix of English and Spanish with a German word thrown in for good measure.

Otherwise language wasn’t much of an issue. Anna and Barbara speak English as do most people in Graz, the major city about 25 minutes distant that we visited on several occasions. The big challenge for me was dinner. Often we were too tired to go into the city so we ate at smallish restaurants in villages where menus were entirely in German. In some cases we found friendly waiters who spoke English and were happy to help. In a few cases, not so much. We got by but since diabetes demands that I know what I am eating, every mealtime was a bit stressful and I ended up sticking with a small selection of menu items I could recognize or get translated. Cathy found it far less stressful and was much more adventurous.

We did have to learn a handful of German words and phrases because some of the commands Luka knows are in German and some are in English.

Dave: Are there any particular memories from training week that stand out for you?
Dave: There are many, and some of them I’ll be devoting entire blog posts to, such as Chicken Camp.

The first day we were there we walked from the B&B to Anna’s farm to meet Luka for the first time. It was uphill most of the way so by the time I got there I was low and I told Anna this before she let Luka out. Luka came out of the house, excited to meet new people, and quickly greeted me. Then he went right to Anna and started tugging on her bringsel. She redirected him to me, and he immediately came over and found the bringsel I was wearing and tugged it off. We had a big dog party and gave him a LOT of tasty canned dog food – our first meeting was probably as memorable for him as it was for me.

Luka’s first alert

One evening as we were getting ready to leave the farm, one of Anna’s dogs escaped and ran full-tilt towards a neighbor down the road who was outside gardening. The dog was very excited and wanted to visit his friend. Earlier that day we had been working on the “really reliable recall” which uses classical conditioning to associate two short blasts on a whistle with a very high value reward. Since it is classical conditioning (not operant) the dog practically has no choice but to turn around and race back to the trainer. I was the only one who had a whistle and Anna quickly urged me to blow it. I could not believe how effectively it worked. That dog was at full speed, only about 20 feet from the object of his desire – the neighbor. But upon hearing the whistle he immediately put on the brakes, turned around and ran back to Anna as fast as he had been running away. I was VERY impressed and Anna was VERY proud. Seriously – I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.

On the first day after having Luka overnight, our assignment was to drive with Luka to a nearby village, take a walk through a park, and meet Barbara afterwards at a cafe. Being alone with him in public with potentially difficult distractions was pretty intimidating to me at first – it felt very much like when my flight instructor opened the door of the plane after landing and said, “Ok, Dave – you’re ready to solo. Have fun!” In both cases I tended to overcontrol the situation at first but soon muscle memory and training kicked in and I was able to relax and enjoy a unique sense of freedom. During our walk we came across a childcare facility with a fenced-in playground full of 3 and 4 year old children. Cathy’s background is in early childhood education and, having four kids, we both loved and miss this special age so we put Luka in a down near the fence as the children came to look and babble at us in German. One of their teachers came over who had good English skills and asked us about Luka. We told her the whole story about him being a service dog trained to detect hypoglycemia associated with diabetes. A look of recognition came over her as she told us about a friend who is diabetic and also wears an insulin pump. She thought it was amazing what Luka could do and translated what the children were saying about him. They were very adorable.

Dave: What about your family life? What do your kids think of Luka?
Dave: They are each developing their own special relationship with him. Some are more reserved, some are more demonstrative, and Luka meets each of them on their terms. When we get home each day he runs through the house to find each member of the family and greet them. We took our trainer’s suggestion and came up with a family name for Luka: “Fritzi.”

The reasoning for this makes good sense: Imagine Luka is a superhero. He has a special power that can protect people from harm (specifically, me) and when he is called into action by his superhero name, Luka, he knows it is his duty to take notice and respond. But Luka also has a life as a mild-mannered member of our family who pet him, talk about him, and call him into over to play with his squeeky toy. At these times we use his family name, Fritzi, so he knows that he has the option of responding to or ignoring us – basically that he is “off duty.” Cathy and I are currently the only ones authorized to call him Luka since we are the only ones who know how to properly issue and reinforce his super-hero commands.

Speaking of super-heroes, there’s this great picture that Frank Wisnesky made. I met Frank at the Wildrose conference this year. He is Dad to a type 1 diabetic daughter and is very involved in the DAD community.










Dave: How was it getting Luka home?
Dave: Cathy and I have differing memories of the experience. I remember Luka as being fairly anxious and stressed during the flight and having to spend a lot of time comforting him and preventing him from looking for a parachute and emergency exit. Cathy remembers that there were some periods of time like this but there were also periods when Luka seemed accepting of the situation and we were able to watch an entire movie and eat a meal while he lay by my feet. Her theory is that I was more stressed than Luka was, primarily out of compassion for his obvious preference to be anywhere but on that plane. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

Dave: After all the trouble you had getting permissing to bring Luka to work, how has it been?
Dave: My co-workers have been incredibly supportive and considerate. Many people have politely let me know how cool they think Luka is and that they are glad he is there. People have been respectful and avoid interacting with him although I have introduced him selectively to some people who he will be around a lot. We’ve settled into a nice routine that includes a long walk at a wildlife refuge on the way to work, a short mid-morning walk in the woods near the parking lot, a longer walk through a park at lunch, a short mid-afternoon walk around the parking lot, and a long walk or bike ride on our street when we get home.

Dave: Bike ride?
Dave: Yes – Luka really likes to run so I bought an attachment for my bike that allows him to be safely tethered to my bike while I ride at a reasonable pace for short distances. Did I mention he likes to run? I often end up putting on the brakes because he is pulling the bike faster than I want him to go – I think in a former life he was on a sled-dog team. At first he tried to bolt after squirrels and rabbits while tethered to the bike but quickly discovered that I outweigh him and the momentum of the bike demands that he keep running in the same direction lest he get dragged. I’ve been practicing riding wide figure eights which forces him to focus on the bike or get run over and this has made our rides really easy – he completely ignores barking dogs that we ride past because he really can’t afford to be distracted.

Dave: Are there any aspects of living with a service dog that differ from your expectations before you had Luka?
Dave: There are many. The most profound is my experience with public access. All along I had fears about feeling self-conscious and out of place bringing a service dog into public places. I thought I would feel a loss of privacy since having a service dog is a pretty big advertisement that you have a medical “problem.” Those fears were mostly unfounded. I feel pretty confident and bold when Luka and I walk into a public place like the library, grocery store, or mall. I stand tall and walk like I have every right to be there. I do tend to avoid eye contact with people but I suspect that will change with time. Even my youngest boys notice that people stare and children point and ask questions – I’m aware of this in my periphery but I’m careful to leave it there.

Dave: Thanks for talking with yourself today. Would you be willing to let me interview you again in a few months to see how you progress?
Dave: I’d be happy to. You know where to find me!


Watch This!

Goofing around at Zotter Chocolate Factory in Austria.

We made it! After an intense week of training and a long flight from Austria, Luka, Cathy and I are settling in to our new life. There are so many stories to tell about our time in Austria that I don’t know where to begin. I’m inclined to tell it sequentially – start at the beginning. But so much is happening every day now that such an approach seems restrictive. Instead I’ve decided to tell the story in snippets merging my current experience with moments from training week.

One of the commands Luka and I have been working on a lot is “watch.” When I give this command he is supposed to look at and focus on me, upon which I mark his behavior with the clicker and give him a treat. This is easy when there are no distractions – indeed most of the time at home or at work he he is checking in with me with great regularity. As the level of distraction increases however, it becomes much harder for him to focus on me. During these times, the chance that my commands will fall on deaf ears increases proportionally with the level of distraction (SQUIRREL!). It is of utmost importance that I enforce 100% of the commands that I issue. If I tell him to sit, he has to sit, and if he does not – mostly likely because he is distracted – it is crucial that I recapture his focus and get him to sit. Failure to do this will, over time, erode his training since he’ll get the idea that he has a choice over which commands to obey and under what circumstances he can ignore them.

It seems to me that the watch command is the bedrock upon which all other commands rest. If you can’t reliably hold or capture your dog’s attention even in times of high distraction then you will inevitably find yourself unable to control him in those situations and end up resorting to brute force or just avoiding those situations entirely – neither of which is ideal. Obviously no dog is perfect, and complete control is probably an unattainable ideal but it is a worthy goal to work towards. So we work on it every day when we are out walking. Often he turns and looks my way without my issuing a “watch” command and I reward this behavior as well. This is all part of operant conditioning, a topic I’ll be explaining in detail when I blog about Chicken Camp, and is central to Luka’s training philosophy.

Once Luka was solidy responding to watch commands and freely offering watch behavior without command I changed the game on him by varying the level of reward that he receives each time. At all times I carry four different level treats with me, another topic I’ll be covering in the future. Level 4 is dry kibble. Level 1 is a mix of chicken and hamburg that we cook on the weekends and package into single-serving containers and is only given as a reward for alerts and a “Really Reliable Recall” command. Level 2 and 3 fall on the tastiness spectrum in between. When Luka responds to a watch command he always gets a treat – I use a lot of level 4’s and 3’s but sometimes I throw in a level 2. When he offers a watch behavior without command then I use the same variable reward scheme except that sometimes I don’t reward at all.

This is called variable reinforcement and is a huge multiplyer for behavioral control. In Luka’s head he is gambling each time he performs the behavior – he never knows exactly what reward he will receive and every so often he gets a jackpot. Yes, I am turning my dog into a gambling junky. Fortunately his paws can’t hold poker chips or pull the arm on a slot machine. This method really works and I can see its impact already. When Luka looks at me there is a questioning look in his eye with a bit of excitement as if he is saying, “What are you going to give me this time, Dave?” It engages him mentally in the game and keeps his focus on me. Games of chance are highly addictive because of the way our brains are wired and I am taking advantage of that to maintain connection with Luka. But unlike in a casino where the house always wins, Luka and I both win – he gets rewarded every time, our bond deepens, and my ability to control his behavior and self-control is strengthened.

During the first two days of training I had a very hard time capturing and holding Luka’s focus. Barbara, our trainer for the week, intentionally put us in highly distracting situations to promote this connection, such as walking past other dogs in a penned area. On Tuesday, our second day of training, Barbara went into a tall fenced-in area and picked up a chicken. I had to walk past the fence with Luka and keep him under control. This was among the most intimidating experiences of the entire week. Barbara had advised me that, should Luka ignore my watch command, I should step towards him with my knees towards his face so that he pretty much had to look up, which I could subsequently reward as a “watch” behavior with a really good treat and, having regained his attention, get him to sit or lie down where he would find it easier to maintain self control. Giving the treat would be important because I needed to remind him what was waiting for him if he would choose to focus on me rather than the chicken, and I couldn’t just offer a treat for free.

Dancing with Luka

Boy did Luka want to go for that chicken! As predicted, my watch commands were completely ignored so Barbara asked me to make him watch and get him to sit. What ensued was a comical dance where Luka would try to peek through or around my legs as I pushed towards him, completely refusing to look up at me and instead trying to keep both eyes on the chicken. Then he started turning in circles backwards and we danced around and around a few inches at a time while he stared excitedly at the chicken and made whining noises. I felt completely out of control. It did eventually work although I’m not entirely sure if it was what I was doing or if he just got bored with the dance. Eventually he looked at me and I rewarded him with a big dose of level 2 and he sat down because it was far more comfortable than looking straight up and eating while standing on all fours. After that, his head swiveled back and forth between me and the chicken as I continued to reinforce his self-control. It wasn’t pretty but it did work in the end. I was thoroughly exhausted!

Back in control!

That night as I was thinking about my day I was thinking how much I disliked that experience and that I would never want to do that again. But I realized that it was actually really valuable because it gave me confidence. Ok, it wasn’t pretty and I was definitely not in complete control. I didn’t resort to brute force to control Luka, and we made it through. There will be times when we encounter similar difficult situations and knowing that I’ll be able to handle them – with or without grace – was very reassuring.

On Thursday Barbara said she wanted to try the “chicken” distraction again. I was thinking, “no problem – we’ve really been working hard since then – this should be a piece of cake.” Then Barbara explained that the situation would be a little different. First of all Luka and I would be alone inside the chicken coop with many chickens and ducks and no fence to separate us. Second of all Luka would be off-leash. Ok – now she had my attention. I’ll cut to the chase (pun intended) and say that no chickens or ducks were harmed in the exercise. Luka did great. It was a lot of work and but I was able to maintain at least a semblance of control using just my voice and body language.

I’m writing this on Thursday, the Fourth of July, just a week after the chicken test. My life has changed so much since then, as has Luka’s. It was a week of many firsts and that’s what I’ll be blogging about next.