Thursday, August 22, 2013

What is the right age for a diabetes alert dog?

Someone recently asked a question about what is the right age for a child to have a diabetes alert dog (and I suppose this would be accurate for many types of service dogs), and what is the right age for a child to take a dog to school.

I imagine you could ask 10 people and get 10 different answers. This is a touchy subject, but I’ll give you my opinion and experience.

First, I think
 that most kids before high school would have a difficult time handling a dog in school full time. Sarah began taking her dog part time at the end of junior high, but he only went 2-3 days per week, and for only a portion of the day. And she had a back-up to keep Scout on days he didn’t go to school or to pick him up if needed. She has no trouble taking him to high school, and so far it’s been a positive experience for both of them. She’s outgoing and theatrical anyway, so having a DAD draw attention to her is not an issue. We have a full size crate at school in a secure and supervised location, and Scout goes into his crate during PE and lunch.

I do think that DAD’s are fine for younger children where the parent is the handler, and the family already has a good grasp of diabetes management AND a real understanding of how much work having a DAD really is.

Absolutely the most important thing is the child (and I’m talking about DAD’s for older children/teens, not small kids). The child has got to be fully invested and really understand what having a DAD means. The very best thing we did for Sarah was to have her volunteer with Guide Dogs for the Blind for over a year before we brought Scout home. She got to experience puppy sitting dogs who were more difficult to handle than a fully trained DAD. She kept the dogs overnight, took them to the grocery store, fed them, picked up their poop, took them on walks and went through grooming and continuing training. I figured if she could do that for a year and not get tired of handling smelly poop and having a dog attached to her, she was ready to have a DAD. But it had to ultimately be her choice because SHE is the handler, and having a DAD is a 24/7 responsibility. Of course we support and help her, but if Scout gets a tummy ache and vomits during Geography – Sarah’s going to be cleaning. And when she feels gross because her bg is high or low, she still has to be aware of Scout and make sure she takes his needs into account even while she’s tending to her own needs. That’s a HUGE amount of responsibility to put on a kid. 

It’s also critical that the child is invested in their own care. If Sarah doesn’t check and reward Scout, he’s going to become bored with the “finding the high/low” game. If she checks and doesn’t correct, or cheats on food often and ends up with constant soaring blood sugars, Scout is going to be stuck in high bg land so long it will become normal. So it’s also critical that the child has the best control possible. A DAD will improve your control only in that the dog will let you know when you’re going high/low and give you an opportunity to act. But a DAD can’t provide greater control if the child isn’t putting in the effort. It’s totally normal for teens to rebel and have crazy blood sugars; but this can be hard on a DAD and probably isn’t the best situation for continued success.

Having a DAD is a choice, like deciding to use an insulin pump instead of injections, or getting a CGM. As much as Sarah’s DAD has changed and improved her diabetes management and given us all an extra sense of security, we still made a choice to take on this level of responsibility and to deal with everything that comes with having a DAD. Sarah continues to make that choice every day, and during the day when he alerts, she makes choices which will determine whether he’ll continue to alert tomorrow and the next day. If she stops being fully engaged and invested in him, he may stop being fully engaged and invested with her. 

A good relationship with an alert dog requires a mutual partnership, build on mutual respect and love.