Scent Training: First Steps with a Diabetic Alert Dog (Video)
Sherlock came to live with me when he was nine weeks old, and we got right to work–crate training, recall and the puppy sit. Then, at four months, I started to take him with me everywhere for socialization–work, read-a-thons, hiking, out to eat and even Universal Studios. After he turned a year, he got his health checks. He has great hips, and an exceptional heart. Now that he’s generally well behaved and in good health, it’s time to start the final phase–scent training.
Scent training has three basic components:
Sherlock’s first odor is saliva from a diabetic with low blood sugar. I started with low blood sugar because it can quickly progress to a life threatening situation. After completing scent training, he will eventually alert his handler of high or low blood sugar by taking her a bringsel, which is a fancy word for a dog toy. Sherlock’s reward while I’m training him is a quick game of retrieve.
In order to train a dog on a scent, you must have scent samples. My sister is diabetic, so when her sugars dropped below 80, she spit into cotton and froze it to help me train Sherlock. The swabs of cotton are labeled with sugar level and date and stored in my freezer until it’s time for a training session. (This is the reason I don’t believe I could train a cadaver dog…body parts in my freezer.)
Before I start training sessions with Sherlock, I take the cotton swab out and let it defrost for 30 minutes. Then, the cotton goes into a piece of PVC pipe with holes drilled in it.
The first time I worked with Sherlock, I tossed the PVC pipe, with the cotton inside, in the back yard on the lawn. This simple game of retrieve taught Sherlock to associate the smell of low blood sugar with a reward, and for the first week that’s all he needed to learn.
As time went on, I made the retrieves more challenging. I threw the PVC pipe into the bushes so Sherlock had to hunt it up. Then, I made him sit and turned to throw the PVC pipe so that he could not see where it landed. That way, he had to use his sense of smell to find it in the yard. I also had my three year old niece run and hide it in the bushes while Sherlock stood beside me, turned away, at heel.
The next step is my favorite, turning the hunt into a game of hide and seek. I made Sherlock sit in the living room, showed him the PVC pipe and then hid it in my bedroom. Then I went back to him and said, “Free!” He started to hunt immediately, and was delighted when he found the PVC on the floor next to my bed. The first few sessions, I made the game very simple. The pipe was exposed and low. But, as Sherlock got better and better at finding the PVC pipe with the cotton soaked low blood sugar inside, I made the game harder. I put the PVC pipe under a pillow, or in a basket. Sherlock had to learn to use his nose more than his eyes.
As the days went by, Sherlock made great progress. He could find the PVC pipe in the bathtub, or tucked between the sofa cushions or hidden up in the bookshelves in the library. Not only that, but once he understood the game, he loved it! As soon as the PVC came out, he sat and stared at me, focus complete, anticipating hide and seek.
To me, that is the best part of training a dog. When things start to click, and the dog anticipates the work with excitement. It lights them up. It lights me up.
Sherlock’s scent training is in no way finished. Our work together is just the beginning. He’ll learn to alert on high sugars. He’ll learn to alert without the PVC pipe. He’ll eventually work with a diabetic so he can alert in real time.
Very soon, he will meet his person. He will spend his life going everywhere with her, helping to make her life better. I can’t imagine that anything would please Sherlock more. He so loves people and so wants to please. He was born for a lifetime of service. But, oh boy, will I miss the way he goes to sleep on my feet when we’re at work.
If you are interested in owning a diabetic alert dog, contact Crystal at Canine Hope for Diabetics.