IMG_20170318_090714The routine is we get up early for a walk. Normally Bear comes to our room before we are even up. Sometimes I hear him downstairs at Dec’s door asking to get out of his room. One or two quick barks, one more, the click of claws on the wood stairs, the swing of the door after he noses the door open, and then the steam from open-mouth breathing. Good morning to you to.

On this particular morning Bear was a bit more of a voracious breather. After the usual routine I grabbed the poop bags and a handful of kibble for our morning walk to the park. On opening the door this morning, Bear aggressively nudged me from the threshold, squeezing himself past me through the door. How rude. He trotted quick-like to the grass strip in front, proceeding to heavy breath and bobbing his head until puking a giant pile. My moment of relief in realizing that I didn’t have to scoop up bile from the rug just inside the door disappeared as I began scooping the pile of mostly granola bar wrappers into a bag meant for solid number twos.

IMG_20161116_205623998My throat constricted, my eyes watered, and whatever remained in my stomach before my breakfast turned, preparing for evacuation. Quickly I looked away from the pile, held my breath, and completed two quick hard swallows, in hopes that sensory deprivation from the object that brought this automatic bodily response on would also deprive my body from completing the evacuation process. Something beyond the smell, feel, and image of the pile forced this response. I think it was the wrappers that I saw that touched something deeper in me. For some reason identifying so vividly what caused this purge in Bear, knowing that I’d picked that box of granola bars off the shelf just the previous week, doubled down my bodily response.


Declan and Maggie’s “Sibling” picture in the yearbook.

Through vision blurred from watery eyes, on wobbly legs, I caught a glimpse of Bear in the next yard over squatting for a number two. And somehow through my blurred vision, as though hyper focused on the cause, the silver on the inside of the granola bar wrappers gleamed and twinkled at me. Not to disappoint, but I was able to maintain control of my body, barely. I completed the pick up with multiple slamming shut of my eyes and holding my breath.

Limping along the sidewalk after, I couldn’t help but think how much better Bear must feel after getting rid of that load from both ends.

The view of Mt. Hood always helps the day.IMG_20170214_072017502

Crystal Clear


Fiona’s Bear portrait. @fionasararose

I realized Bear’s challenge last week while standing on the front porch. Bear stared across the street as the mail-truck eased to the curb. Not only do we need Bear to not act like a dog, ignoring attentions from admirers, which is everyone in his eyes, and ignoring food and scent treats, but we also need him to rely on scent to signal when someone has low-blood sugar. It was while I stood on the porch with Bear that I realized Bear relies more on sight then he does on scent.

He stood on the porch, staring at the mailman for a moment before he snapped a quick bark to him. It was not a threatening bark, but rather a “Hello there person that always has treats in his pocket for me, don’t you go anywhere, I’m coming over for my treat because I know you love giving me treats” bark. He skipped four steps to the sidewalk, belting out another bark while on final approach. On tiptoes, anticipating the attention and treat, Bear wagged his body, looking more like a worm than a dog.

At some point the US Postal Service changed from pepper spray to treats to protect themselves from the canines. Without inside information I don’t know when this strategic shift from stick to carrot occurred, but I do know it was at least four years ago. As far as Bear knows, postmen deliver treats to dogs. And so it is that when walking Bear off leash (another story about off leash walking to come), he will suddenly break into a sprint at the site of a mail truck, postmen, or mail bag.

bear on porchBear aggressively noses the walking postman, nudging his chops into the post bag and the pockets, searching for the treats, while the postman attempts to find his treats. I trail Bear, apologizing and explaining that he associates mail with treats. And then I wonder if that comment somehow belittles the postman. They deliver mail and hand out treats. So sometimes I dispense with the explanation and simply apologize.

And so I realize the main challenge for Bear in signaling low blood sugars is more the fact that he relies on sight more than he does on scent. If only we could train Bear on the draining of pigment that occurs with a low-blood sugar, which is a very subtle change for those of Irish descent, which I’m sure Bear could distinguish with his ability to spot postmen; then he could switch from his now lagging low-blood sugar indicator, pawing and barking when he sees Maggie or Dec drinking a juice-box, into a leading low-blood sugar indicator, pawing before they find out they are actually low.


close up bearThe lack of training, and more importantly the lack of treats going along with the training, has not ceased Bear’s signalling. His learning is less direct. He is re-evaluating the situation and how the high-value treats are distributed to maximize consumption of dried cow liver. A common strategy in this new day of no direction for Bear, which also happened to be a common strategy of yore, is to simply signal Maggie whenever she is around.

Bear sleeps on his couch. Maggie walks in from a run or from meandering around town, heading home like a fishing boat without navigation somehow finding its home port. First Bear’s ear twitches, followed quickly by a quick sniff. His eyes open and he struggles to roll from his back without flopping onto the floor. If you look at the right time you see a subtle grin from Bear as he spots Maggie going to the kitchen.

In no apparent hurry, Bear goes through a down- and up-dog before shaking off the last remnants of sleep, sauntering over to Maggie. She stares into the fridge, stricken with first-world fridge-blindness. Bear takes one sniff of Maggie’s knee, confirms it is indeed Maggie, and proceeds to signal, pawing Maggie’s calf.

bear on porchInstead of the atta-boy and a treat he expects, Bear receives a deafening “OW!” from Maggie. She glares at Bear then quickly connects the dots to me, glares at me, asking, “Why is he signalling?” She doesn’t voice it, but her stare also wonders why he doesn’t know that we aren’t playing that low blood-sugar for high-value treat game anymore? And on top of not playing anymore, why would he signal when I’m not low? I see these questions, or really accusations, in Maggie’s eyes glaring at me, thankful she is not equipped with laser eyes.

And it wouldn’t take much to uncover the pile of resentment for not only beginning the training in the first place, but also for even getting Bear at all. Think of all the shoes, books, and belts that would have been spared had the entire process never begun.

Bear doesn’t know we aren’t playing the game, and it’s been a reliable strategy in the past, so why not continue pawing Maggie at every opportunity. And I can’t fault him. In fact, I can’t help but hold out a secret hope that the years of training won’t be for naught, but rather simply some sort of time delay capsule, and that Bear is in the final stages of making sense of the game.

I think of the time Bear signalled an in-range Dec during training, only to get a small reprimand for a false positive. And then Maggie staggering upstairs searching for sugar. I think of the time nine-month old Bear jumped on someone I was meeting with at PSU, receiving a scolding for such rude behavior. And then hearing back from the victim of Bear’s rudeness that she was in fact hypo-glycemic, and was very low at our meeting.

bear by doorI cringe at all the lost moments for Bear. I thnk of the times he nailed it, smelling the low and signalling, only to be punished for his good work. My neck tingles as each scene unfolds in my mind, tensing in the end with punishment in place of a celebration. Each time learning of his good work well beyond any positive spin could occur. I wonder how much damage those instances did to the training process. Certainly as much or more damage than his Parvo incident.

I did throw in the flag on this low-signalling game. But what should I do with the middle of the night barking? Is it a low-blood sugar scent from Maggie or Dec that Bear is calling to attention, or is it the half loaf of Dave’s killer bread kicking down his back door that he needs relieve? In these days of no training, turns out I still drag myself downstairs, checking blood sugars in the dark, and more than half the time, giving Bear a dried cube of cow liver.

Coming to Terms with It

IMG_20150729_072442296It’s been a long time. I’ve wondered why go on with it. I was walking Bear down to the park, off-leash, meandering from tree to bush to ice-cream wrapper in the street like when you arrive at the airport early, you have to get to the gate but plenty of time to get there. It’s a summer afternoon with nothing on the agenda save for making dinner.

Across the street the postman finishes his deliveries. Pulling away from the curb he spies Bear sniffing under a rhododendron bush with a Popsicle stick planted near the base. The postman stops and jumps out of the truck so excited to see Bear.

Pointing at Bear, he says, “Your dog really loves to sleep.” Bear looks up, smiling at the postman, and wags his way over to him for a treat and some pets.

2016-02-13This moment, seven blocks from Bear’s couch, where he normally laid paws up in the air snoring, more than any false positive or missed low-alert, solidified in my mind Bear’s likely life trajectory. At the end of his work day, the postman recognizes Bear, not as the maniacal protective dog barking at him through a closed door, but as the dog that snores away on a couch, nary a movement while the postman clangs around on the front porch. He was probably just excited to see that Bear was in fact a living animal, not a decoy stuffed-animal laying infinitely motionless on the couch.

The postman climbed out of his truck, treat in one hand and other hand extended for Bear to lick, excited to see a living version of Bear. It was as if he’d witnessed a resurrection, once dead on the couch, now trotting around the neighborhood searching for treasure. At this moment it occurred to me Bear was solidly in the “pet” category as a dog living in our home. Up until this moment, I’d held out hope that Bear was not yet completely a pet, that he might veer towards that “service-dog” category. I thought that maybe he’d miraculously begin signaling low blood-sugars for Dec and Maggie.

Muddy day chasing the ball.

Muddy day chasing the ball.

And it wasn’t a sad moment. Rather, the weight of scent training and checking everyone’s blood-sugar after Bear pawed or let out a high-pitched bark had suddenly been lifted. We could go on our less complicated lives. No more slightly hidden anxieties as the diabetics lolly gagged, pretending to make their way to a kit to check blood-sugar after Bear gave a signal. Suddenly I was happy that Bear was able to walk down the street off-leash, because he is one big dog, and my shoulder gets sore tugging at his 110 pound mass.

Summer time

IMG_20150618_154325770_HDRThus far it’s been busy, and will be busy for a few more weeks before things ramp down a bit. Gathering supplies for her trip to Israel, Maggie needed some hiking boots, which is how she heard about Hamilton Mountain trail from the nice shoe salesman. He said the views were amazing, so we figured out how to get there. Knowing only that the shoe salesman thought it was a beautiful hike, and the need for Maggie to break in her new shoes, we piled into the Prius.

We left around eleven, which on a non-summer day would have meant Bear had already logged two hours of nap and eaten half a loaf. But this day Bear hadn’t logged but twenty minutes as he was attentive to the sandwiches being made, hoping for a treat to drop, and the packing of bags, which he may or may not know means a trip.

Either Bear gets bored with bags or he has learned that packing bags means an extended time away from his crew because he swung between being anxious for a piece of turkey to drop from the counter and hanging his head low, dropping to the ground as we packed bags for the hike.

It wasn’t until just prior to leaving that he saw the poop-bags and the scoop of kibbles taken for small treats that Bear got the signal that this trip he’d be coming on. And just in case we happened upon a ranger, I grabbed the leash, which was the final signal for Bear that he was indeed coming on the trip.

IMG_20150618_135547330Not only did Maggie need to break in her shoes, but she also needs more practice driving, so she was at the wheel. She is an extremely safe driver, which is great, but she may not yet the best changer of lanes or merger. And this is why we practice, but it is still stressful riding co-pilot as the pilot takes her foot completely off the gas to prepare to change lanes on the freeway, which is really the opposite of what should be happening. Changing lanes becomes immensely more difficult with a pile of cars honking behind you, and cars flashing by on both the left and right sides. We survived and arrived in one piece.

At this point Bear had only managed twenty minutes of napping with all the commotion while driving, clearly under his preferred normal 200 minutes accumulated on a normal day. However, Bear, like most dogs, is very adaptable and showed no signs of fatigue during the hike.

Knowing that sustained exercise, even just walking, lowers blood sugar in both Dec and Maggie, we checked blood sugars. Maggie was fine, but Dec was low, a by-product of dosing for a bagel but not eating it. A bagel is packed with carbs, so it was a large dose he’d given earlier and had already treated one low from it. (Sidenote: Dec is now on a pump, which has been great, but we are still adjusting to it a bit)

Bear picked up on the bags being packed and the lunches being made, but he missed the low blood sugar, and he napped with his head on Dec’s lap. I told Dec that Bear didn’t signal because of the commotion and excitement of being out in the wilderness, in a new place with a lot of new smells. However, I’m coming to terms with Bear just being a pet. The saga is not over, but it tips in that direction.

IMG_20150618_144356742We treated the low and got moving, stopping every mile or two to check blood sugar and snack. We never made it to the place on the hike with amazing views, the one that sold Maggie on the hike, but we made it to some really nice waterfalls. We ate. Bear drank. And we hiked back. In all it was probably around seven miles.

IMG_20150618_151606580There were no more low blood-sugars for the day, and the drive back did not invoke any high-blood pressure incidents. I think I was just tired and didn’t pay as much attention, which is probably healthier for both teacher and student.

The following day we went surfing. Dec and Bear came along. Again there was a non-signaled low-blood sugar. A decision needs to be made over whether to make one more effort to train this dog of ours, or to be happy with having an extremely happy (and expensive) pet.IMG_20150618_151512135_HDR