It was 9 months between my acceptance into the SDWR program for a Diabetic Alert Dog and the ‘delivery’ of my wonderful and amazing service dog, Winston. The same gestational timeframe as a human baby!
During that 9 months of waiting for his delivery, I had many emotions. Unbridled enthusiasm and excitement for the positive ways my life would change once I got my Service Dog. Fears about whether the dog that SDWR chose for me would be a good fit. Occasional self-doubt about whether or not I had what it took to be the owner/master of such a special dog. A belief that it would all be ‘okay’ because my dog would be the perfect Service Dog.
Winston hard at work!
Once I found out the type, name, and sex of my dog 5 months into the gestation, I started to fall in love. I saw photos and videos of “MY DOG!” I looked at the images over and over again, told all my loved ones about my special dog, and envisioned the life we would have together once he arrived. I saw myself walking peacefully in the park while he strode gently beside me. I imagined him alerting me every time my blood sugars were too high or too low. I saw him being cued in to me at all hours of the day and night. And, I saw him being perfectly gentlemanly in all situations because after all… he’s a Service Dog, right?
So, then my baby arrived! The trainer opened the door for him to greet me and that 65 pound beautiful Golden Lab jumps out of the car, runs to me for a quick hug, and then bolts into the backyard with a burst of energy that took me a little by surprise! What? He didn’t stay in my arms and tell me at that moment that I actually had a low blood sugar (because I was so nervous about his delivery that I was burning through my on-board glucose rapidly)?
This was my first lesson in one of the most beautiful things about Service Dogs from SDWR — they get to be dogs too! He had been in a car for three days, traveling from Virginia to Washington State. He was thrilled to have a big grassy yard to stretch his legs and burn off some of the energy he had been storing up. My baby entered in to my world with the most joy I had ever seen in an animal. We played fetch, we ran around together, and we eventually collapsed together in one of those amazing dog-human embraces that immediately reassured me that my pup was meant for me and we would have an amazing future together.
Over the next few weeks, I learned so much about what it meant to really have a Service Dog. Again, a broad array of emotions. Some expected, some not. My biggest surprise was how quickly he bonded with me. Wow! I felt loved by him immediately and that bond continues to grow daily even though it’s hard to believe it could become better than it was the day before. His personality couldn’t be more perfect for me… He’s up for all the adventures we share – kayaking, hiking, river rafting, fly fishing, and traveling far and wide on a plane or in a car. He is also unbelievably calm and gentle with all people and animals – not aggressive or possessive in any way. He follows me around wherever I go and looks at me with those puppy eyes like I’m the greatest thing in the universe. I fell in love quickly and deeply.
There were also some confusing things. He alerted well but wasn’t always right and sometimes missed an alert. He walked beautifully beside me but sometimes pulled on the leash when he saw another dog across the street or that was barking behind a fence. I bought him an expensive dog bed but he mostly liked to just sleep on the hard floor. I sometimes felt his behavior did not match my expectations for the “perfectly behaved” Service Dog. That felt frustrating sometimes, as it meant I had to put in some extra training time to support the behaviors that I needed him to have.
So, What Have I Learned?
- Your Service Dog will love you like crazy!
- Loving your Service Dog in return requires you to not only be loving, but also to be attentive to your dog’s needs.
- SDWR is extremely responsive to and supportive of helping you develop the best relationship as is possible with your dog. Their 18-month training follow up (which includes weekly reports, face-to-face visits, and responsiveness to phone calls and emails) will help you to work through any kinks in your dog’s training and help you to be a more knowledgeable and confident dog owner and trainer.
- Your dog will garner a lot of positive public attention! People see a dog with a Service Vest on and they immediately feel good. People may stare or may come up to you with questions about your dog. I have found this to be a wonderful way to be an ambassador for the benefits of Service Dogs (and SDWR) as well as an educator about my disease.
- Following your dog’s arrival, there will be an adjustment period. Everything you do now will include planning for what your dog needs, too. Do you have snacks, food, water, waste bags, his vest, and his leash when you leave home? Doing errands will take longer because you have to account for the time it will take to attend to your dog. Are you prepared for some of the shedding your dog will do? All of these things may feel like a big deal in the beginning but will really become second nature in a short period of time. You WILL make the adjustment and you WILL continuously be rewarded for the time, love, patience, and effort you put in to maintaining your dog’s training and well-being.
Tips on Training and Caring for Your Dog’s Needs:
- He will need continuous training to keep his skills finely tuned, to nurture new skills, and to address missteps – that are bound to happen as, after all… these are dogs, not machines.
- He will need you to establish yourself as the “boss,” the “parent,” the “alpha dog,” whatever you want to call it. He needs YOU to set the parameters for his behavior otherwise, like a child; he could push the boundaries and try to get away with things he knows are naughty.
- He will need consistency, persistence, and firmness from you. This is not discipline, it is setting clear limits that help your dog to really trust you and know that you care for his welfare.
- He will also need good vet care, good nutrition, and lots of time to ‘just be a dog.’ Your dog’s health and love for you will be enhanced with playtime! Run around the yard with him, play fetch, take him on interesting walks, find out which toys he likes.
- You dog will need your patience and calmness. If you get impatient, anxious, uptight, nervous, angry, or obviously frustrated with your dog, he will ‘sense’ this and this could make him struggle with getting back on task. Remember, our Service Dogs are highly sensitive and attuned to us, so they will easily be able to ‘pick up’ on our negative feelings about them.
So, welcome to the amazing, wild, precious, exciting, and remarkable journey with your Service Dog. Speak up with your questions. You’ve put a lot of time and energy into getting your Service Dog and expressing what you need will be continually helpful to you and your beloved companion. Every dog and every recipient is extremely important and SDWR will always be there for support!
Tracee and Winston
To find out more information and to apply for your own SDWR Diabetic Alert Dog please visit http://www.sdwr.org/service-dogs/diabetic-alert/.