As Pet Week continues, we would like to introduce you to A1C Champion, Frank Atherton, and his service dog, Sammy.
Tell us about your Service Dog: Sammy is a 9-year-old Jack Russell Terrier. I had Sammy as a pet for seven years before we started training him to be a Service Dog.
When and why did you get Sammy?
We originally got Sammy as a pet. However, Sammy naturally showed a tendency toward wanting to be a service dog because he woke me up during the middle of the night one night and wouldn’t leave me alone. I wondered why Sammy was being so persistent… he was standing up on the bed and kept head butting me. It hurt and something told me there was something wrong and needed to be looked at. I finally got up and checked my blood sugar, even though I felt fine and didn’t feel any symptoms. It turns out I wasn’t having a low, but I was having a high. Since Sammy sensed that, I decided to talk to a trainer about training him as an alert dog because he was naturally showing that it was something he would be good at doing.
Jack Russell Terriers are not common service dogs, but it makes sense they would be good at it because they were originally bred to be scent dogs and to chase critters because they have a really good sense of smell.
How does one become a candidate for a Service Dog?
Sammy was a candidate to become a service dog because he is extremely smart, obedient and has a good nose. Sammy was also a good candidate because he is not as hyper as most Jack Russell Terriers and has a good temperament for it.
What training has Sammy gone through? Where did the training take place?
Sammy was trained through Dog Training Elite, a company with 35 years of experience in training service dogs. They trained Sammy at our home over one year’s time. He is trained to alert me whenever my blood glucose is at or below 70 mg/dl.
Sammy was trained with a diluted saliva solution from when I had a low. I dipped a Q-tip in it and rubbed it on different parts of my body and Sammy got a treat every time he went to that spot. I would then push him away to train him to come back more aggressively each time. Eventually he wouldn’t need the treats to recognize the low.
Sammy is 95% accurate with catching my lows, but because he’s a terrier he tends to not alert me the same way each time. He picks whatever he feels is the most annoying way to get my attention… Cold wet nose to wake me up, head butt, gentle scratch with claw, whatever it takes. Sammy literally pushed me out of bed the last time to alert me I was having a low.
How were you trained to work with Sammy?
It was a gradual training since Sammy was trained in our home. We wouldn’t do more than a 10 minute session at one time because you don’t want to push the dog too much. We would always end the session on a positive note with a really good alert. There were also homework assignments.
I don’t need to use Sammy every day, mostly only at night since that is typically when my lows occur, but I still takes him out in public all of the time so he stays used to people and distractions.
What was the transition like day-to-day with Sammy?
There wasn’t really much of a transition from day-to-day since he was trained with me in the home. I had to get used to the fact that Sammy’s behavior wasn’t just to annoy me, it was to tell me that I needed to check my blood sugar. Sammy is very persistent. Once he has alerted me, he will follow me to the meter and sit there until I pick it up to check my blood sugar.
Other than helping with managing your diabetes, what is your relationship like with Sammy? How does he add to your quality of life?
We had a special bond from the very beginning. When we first got Sammy we weren’t looking for a dog at the time, but I was told by a trainer that he had never seen a dog as immediately bonded to me as Sammy. Still to this day Sammy is always by my side.
What are common misconceptions about Service Dogs?
A lot of people see Sammy and see the red vest. They automatically assume they can pet him and sometimes I have to tell them to wait until I tell them it is okay to pet him. You have to train people on how service dogs work. However, I like it when people ask to pet Sammy because I can answer their questions and it gives me an opportunity to explain to others all that Sammy does for me.
I would encourage others with Type 2 diabetes who are insulin dependent and having a lot of unrecognized lows, to at least consider getting a dog and finding a trainer that will work with you in your home to train the dog. A lot of people think it is difficult to do, but it is not. There are a lot of trainers out there who can train your dog. It is important to find the right trainer who you gel with and take it from there. It doesn’t happen overnight, but with the right dog and trainer it can happen. Service dogs are valued at about $25,000. Sammy’s training cost around $1,500, but the investment was well worth the effort and time for me.