I was twelve years old when I first encountered a working dog. I was on vacation with my family in Chicago, and my dad and I were about to board the Skokie Swift train after a Cubs game. An on duty police officer with his K-9 in tow was maintaining his post. The dog was a German shepherd, which looked a lot like my pet dog. I reached out to touch him, and the officer quickly and harshly slapped my hand away. I remember crying because the slap hurt, and I didn’t understand why I could not pet the dog. What dog doesn’t like to be pet?
Looking back on that event, I now understand why.
Was the officer’s reaction harsh? Maybe, but I believe he did it to protect his dog, himself, and me. My actions may have been perceived as a threat to both the officer and the dog. Had he not been paying attention, I could have easily been attacked by the dog, and it would have been my fault. That was day I learned not to touch, distract, or really make any contact with a working animal without first asking permission, be it for law enforcement, or a public access service dog. Fast-forward twenty six years: my wife and I are now the parents of a child with Type 1 diabetes who uses a service dog to help manage his blood glucose.
A diabetes alert dog is a full access service animal, protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. After thorough research on diabetes alert dogs (DAD), we decided to work with Diabetic Alert Dogs of America, and on February 18, 2015, our son became the handler of a wonderful male Goldendoodle appropriately named Jellybean. Jellybean has the ability to smell the changes in our son’s body composition as his blood glucose drops too low or is too high. He is trained to alert our son when his blood sugar reaches 80mg/dL on the low end, and 150mg/dL on the high end. Jellybean reminds our son to check his blood sugar, and then either eat something, or administer insulin via his pump before a real emergency takes place. Jellybean is trained to provide alerts by pawing at my son when his blood glucose levels change. Since our son has hypoglycemia unawareness, we felt that a DAD was necessary.
Living with Jellybean has been a huge adjustment for our family. We were concerned about bringing another dog into the mix, as we have two older pugs. Would they get along? Would they possibly teach Jellybean bad habits? Is a service dog allowed to have down time and just be a dog? We had no prior knowledge of service dog rules. Like managing our son’s diabetes, we had to learn.
We learned that it is important to allow Jellybean time to be a dog. Like any other dog, he needs to get exercise. He loves to run, play fetch, and unlike our other dogs, will actually bring the ball back.
In the short time Jellybean has been a member of our family, he has formed a great relationship with our son. Jellybean accompanies his young handler to school, and anywhere else he goes, and has been doing his job well. Our son’s teachers always tell us that Jellybean knows when something is wrong. If our son is not next to Jellybean due to an activity, the dog paces anxiously, alerting his teachers that it is time for a blood sugar check.
Living with a service dog brings a lot of attention to our son. When we go to places where dogs are not normally allowed, we get all kinds of looks, comments, (kind, curious, or otherwise). People stop to say how cute the dog is, and of course want to pet him. Sometimes we are happy to talk to those who are legitimately curious about service animals, and other times, we just want to do our thing.
We have quickly learned that people don’t notice Jellybean’s clearly marked service dog vests, with patches identifying him as such that say, “do not pet.” People don’t understand that service dogs are not house pets; they are walking, living medical devices. What does that mean? Specifically to our son, or any other diabetic person with a DAD, their dog is a living continuous glucose monitor that walks on four legs and is covered in lots of hair. Distracting a service animal could mean the difference between life and death.
Like anything else, as well trained as service dogs are, they are not robots. They are not perfect. Sometimes they slip up. Sometimes they miss an alert. How does this happen? At the end of the day, a service dog is still a dog, and is an animal of free will. In our experience, a quick correction with a slight tug on his leash connected to a prong collar, and Jellybean is back on track.
If you acquire a service dog through a reputable agency like we did, the dog will be delivered fully trained. However, practice makes perfect, and if we don’t keep up on it, Jellybean can loose those valuable life saving skills. Life with a service animal is a marathon, not a sprint, and if you view it any other way you are setting yourself up for major disappointment.
Owning/handling a service dog is a wonderful thing, but it require one hundred percent dedication to ensure that the dog/handler team is successful. With a young child, extra assistance will be needed from the parents. On the outside, you would never know that our son has diabetes. It would be easy to think that Jellybean is just a well-trained dog, and is not actually working because it can appear that he is not doing anything. However, anytime Jellybean is with our son he is on duty, constantly smelling his environment around him, and determining if a wacky blood sugar is one of those smells.
Some may say that having a service dog accompany our son everywhere only reminds him of the fact that he has diabetes. We believe the contrary because we know that as our son gets older, he will feel a better sense of independence. Jellybean is his path to that independence because he will always look after our son with complete devotion. They have an amazing relationship. If we had to do it over again, we would without question. As the old saying goes, dogs really are man’s best friend.