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Training a dog to alert

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Member Since
Barked: Sat Jan 3, '09 6:50pm PST 
Hi, I'm looking for information on how to teach my dog to alert to my medical condition. I have diabetes and a Staffordshire Bull Terrier and my dog has often acted differently around me when I my blood sugars become too low. He obsessively licks me and sits on me in a very protective manner. I often don't notice this behaviour until I realize I am feeling unwell however, so I would like to train him to alert me in a more recognisable way- perhaps by barking, or 'leading' me to my blood sugar meter, or waking me up if I become ill during the night? . shrug My diabetes is not always problematic in everyday life, however my mother worries about it a lot and I feel this would help to stop worrying and could potentially be very, very helpful one day.
I have read that there is a scent change that dogs alert to in hypoglycemic people. How would I go about teaching my dog to alert to this?

Super Silver- Service Spoodle
Barked: Sun Jan 4, '09 4:47pm PST 
That is great your dog is already alerting you. Having a dog that alerts is a two way street, you've got to listen to your dog, and your dog has to pay attention to you. It sounds like your dog is already doing some behaviors to alert you, so you have two choices. First you can pay attention to your dog when it is exhibiting these behaviors, and reward it when it does so that you strengthen the alert. The other option is to try to shape your dog into doing a new alert behavior. To do this, when your dog alerts the old way, you need to then have it do what you want it to do for the new alert. So if for example you want your dog to bring you medication or a blood meter, you'll have to train the dog to bring the item to you when you say the command. Then whenever your dog alerts, give the command to bring the item. With repitition, the dog should eventually learn that when it goes into alert mode, it should bring the item. I've had good success with Sabrina's alerts just realizing what her alerts look like, and then paying attention to her behavior. With Ollie, his alert to my panic attacks is barking which is not acceptable, so I am trying to shape it into a different behavior (ideally I'd like him to touch me), however he doesn't seem to like this very much so we are currently trying to compromise on a quiet alert that is acceptable for the both of us.

Anyone can train their pet to assist them around the house, and your post does not mention if you are interested in trying to make your dog a service dog or not. Just in case you are thinking of trying to train your dog as a service dog, just wanted to point out that you have to have a life limiting disability, your dog must be trained to assist with your disability, and the dog must be trained not to cause disturbances in public. It takes about 1-2 years to train a service dog and it is very very important to start out with the right dog as many dogs are not suitable and do not enjoy service work. If you are interested in goign this route, talk with your doctor to see if they think you are disabled, then find a professional trainer to evaluate your dog and assist with your training.

Member Since
Barked: Sun Jan 4, '09 4:54pm PST 
Thank you for posting, Ollivander smile

I wasn't planning on training my boy as a proper service dog as I do not feel that I need one. I just wanted to work on his alerting as a 'just in case' sort of thing- I sometimes do not notice I am unwell until I stand up, etc. and being left untreated is not very safe.
Thank you for your suggestions- I think that perhaps a new alerting behaviour will not be necessary in my case, I will just need to make sure I recognise my dog's behaviour.


Always happy
Barked: Mon Jan 5, '09 5:22am PST 
I taught my dog to alert for my attacks by giving her a biscuit every time I felt one coming on. After 8 months she is 80%+ accurate. I have them very often so it was possible to work her this way.
Maizie Moo

Yup, I'm a- fashion diva,- DEAL!
Barked: Fri Jan 9, '09 2:36pm PST 
My Maizie (Miniature Dachshund) is my Diabetic Alert Dog. She was not "professionally" trained to alert, it came to her naturally (I'm told by several SD organizations that approx. 1 in 1500 dogs will naturally alert to low/high bloodsugars without formal scent training).

When I realized that Maizie was alerting to my lows I contacted a few schools (Dogs4Diabetics, Heaven Scent Paws, etc) and asked for advice on how to encourage and reinforce her behavior.

Big time praise was the main advice... and, being sure that the dog is "alerting", by testing my bloodsugar when I believe she is alerting. When she is accurate, I praise her to the moon and back and give her a treat. After two+ years she no longer gets treats regularly, only on occasion, but always gets tons of praise.

Another thing I've done just to reinforce her natural ability to alert... when I do have a low sugar, I use a two-by-two guaze pad and swab my skin. I put the swab in a sealed container (I use sterile specimen cups my doctor gives me), and put a clean swab in another sterile cup. During the day (when my bloodsugar is doing ok) I test Maizie by showing her the two cups and telling her to "touch"... she always touches her nose to the cup with the swab from my skin in it. Of course I praise her up and give her a treat.

Maizie gets very very excited when my sugar is low... she paws at my chest, licks my face and "nips" at my nose, ears & chin. When I do the "swab" test, she gets all wiggly and excited too, and does a little dance around the cup. lol. When I say "touch" she gives the right cup a little nudge with her snoot and then sits and waits for that reward. lol. Smart smart little doxie girl.

Member Since
Barked: Fri Jan 9, '09 4:10pm PST 
Maizie, is your "clean" swab actually clean, or did you swab your skin when your blood sugar was fine?

If it is just a clean gauze, she could be going to the one that smells like you rather than the one that is from the low blood sugar.

Don't Berate,- Educate!
Barked: Tue Jan 13, '09 2:54pm PST 
Sorry to highjack this topic, but, Ollie, how did you get your dogs to alert you? Was it something they did naturally, or what? I just recently got a pup that someone is going to help me train, but she mostly does mobility-type training. She has a few ideas for us, but I thought maybe I should ask someone who has had experience with this. Any suggestions?

Spike does it naturally, but so far Ludo (new pup) doesn't really seem to notice anything I do... Of course, he is just a baby and I don't expect much out of him right now, but I don't know at what point I should start looking for it or training him for it.

Super Silver- Service Spoodle
Barked: Tue Jan 13, '09 6:10pm PST 
There are two general ways to go about teaching an alert.

Option 1: Whenever you get sick, reward your dog like crazy. Give lots of treats and affection when you are sick. Once your dog gets the hang of this, as soon as you start to get sick, have your dog do whatever behavior you want them to use for their alert. Your dog will learn to associate you getting sick with them doing a particular behavior and getting a treat. The idea is that your dog will like the rewards and attention so much that they will start to pick up on you getting sick on their own. First they should start coming over without you asking when you are sick, and eventually they will anticipate you getting sick. This method is more laid back and allows your dog to use whatever signal they want to tell if you are going to get sick (ie they might use your scent, your heart rate, breathing etc).

Option 2: When you are sick, wipe yourself with a clean cotton hankie and put it in a ziptop baggie labeled sick. Do the same to yourself when you are not feeling sick. Collect a bunch of these baggies. Using traditional scent training techinques, teach your dog to recognize and do a particular behavior at the scent bag containing your sick smell but not your well smell. The idea is that your dog will pick up on the scent difference and start to alert to it on your body as well as just in the baggie. This method forces your dog to rely on scent, which may or may not actually change depending on your disorder (it definitley does for diabetics, but for other things it might be a different cue).

Sabrina was a natural alerter, so I never had to train it. With Ollie I used method number one, though I didn't actually pick a behavior for him to do at first, just rewarded him when I was sick. He's started barking to alert to panic attacks, and he just responds but does not alert to depression. I haven't had a mania since having him. So now I am working on shaping his alert into an acceptable behavior.