Signals

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.

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Approaching year three

Muddy day chasing the ball.

Muddy day chasing the ball.

It has been awhile. Nearly three years. We are settled into our routines. Unfortunately, one of those routines is not scent training. With all the intentions to do so, it has not happened. For me it is partly the constant vigilance that needs to occur. Whenever Bear signals people need to check blood sugar and appropriately signal back to Bear whether the scent he picked up on was the appropriate one.

In fits and starts I’ll do scent training. I’ll get all the materials ready. The scent vial will be in the fridge. The high value treats in a container. And I’ll collect new scent samples from Dec and Maggie when they are low. In the morning I’ll do a quick training with three or four treats being given out. The afternoon training consists of trying to sneak up on sleeping Bear with a scent. After alerting the first time I’ll hide the scent in different parts of the house.

Cuddling in the back seat.

Cuddling in the back seat.

And after a few days of training, Bear signals more often, but not very accurately. He cycles through different triggers to signal for. Bear signaled when he saw either Maggie or Dec with a kit, getting ready to check their blood sugar. Not a bad idea, as after checking they are sometimes low. There was a time when Bear signaled as soon as Maggie showed up. I realized this happened after training with a couple of low-scent vials from Maggie. Again, not a complete whiff, Bear attempts to connect triggers during training. More recently Bear signals whenever he sees a juice pouch. To his credit the juice pouch comes out to treat a low blood sugar. So he tries to get the signal, but for some reason he is not getting the scent. And we haven’t been doing a lot of training recently, so the only time we “train” is after Maggie or Dec are really low and they sidled up to him after finding out they are low with the kit.

Bear gives Dec about a third of the bed.

Bear gives Dec about a third of the bed.

Bear loves the treats. And he certainly won’t get any of the leftover Passover brisket without signaling. So he continues to try. In hindsight, Bear signals in places and times that are similar to the training: in the afternoon with everyone around (especially me). Bear has not alerted in the middle of the night for I don’t know how long. And Maggie has a low two out of three nights. Luckily, she still wakes from the low. To his defense, Dec’s bed looks pretty comfortable.

For the time being, Bear is simply a lovable dog to hang around with.

Playing with the cousins.

Playing with the cousins.

Turning the corner

Bear takes a selfie

Bear takes a selfie

So Declan asked, “When can I take Bear to school?” I thought, ‘it’ll be a while, quite a while; and do you really want to take him to school?’ But I said, “You could probably take him this year, but we have to work with Bear to calm him down more in public places.”

This conversation occurred a few times, along with Declan suggesting that we take Bear to the store more often to get him more calm in public. I think it is great that Dec is thinking about this. And I wonder if there are some slightly ulterior motives. You see Declan is on the shy side. And he is in middle school. I’m wondering if he is thinking Bear might be a great icebreaker with some coeds. Bear is as outgoing as Declan is an introvert. I imagine Dec walking down the hallway, Bear on leash walking up to every kid for a hello. And some of them going crazy, “Oh my God! How cute! He is so soft! What’s his name?” Which is where Dec would finally be able to step in and have words with them.

Letting Dec share his couch on a sick day.

Letting Dec share his couch on a sick day.

But maybe I’m just projecting what I’d have been thinking if I were in Dec’s position. I’d have leveraged it past diminishing returns, into the land of negative returns. So maybe Dec just really wants to be around Bear more, to have Bear have a fuller life, one bigger than the two walks a day and laying belly-up on the couch. And this is more in Dec’s nature, always looking out for those around him.

And so we dug into the closet to find the “Service Dog” vest for Bear. Bear remembers it, pulling his ears back and even shying away when he sees it. But once it is on, he is fine.

All smiles

All smiles

Taking him into the store I remember how I used to take him when he was a puppy and wonder what I was thinking. I’m not sure why, but I would take him in the store and do the shopping. Bear lurched for every little crumb on the floor and I’d be trying to control him with one hand while pushing the cart with the other. I realize hindsight is 20:20, but I’m shocked I’d never thought of walking through the store, Bear in tow, without shopping. Now when I take Bear I feel superior to my self of two years ago who tried shopping while taking Bear around.

Bear is older now as well, which makes the stroll around the store easier. He no longer dives for each little crumb on the floor. He is wizened now, he knows a loaf of bread waits for him in the pantry, and he must know the foraging return is much greater at home. Which brings us to the bread aisle. This is by for the most challenging part of the store for Bear. My presence dampens his drive to forage, but he looks to bread, planning his return to the bread aisle off-leash, and probably calculating if he could take the loaf all the way back to the TV room, the place to consume contraband.

Bear is not only less eager to sniff and grab at the nose-level food, but he is also not as interested in meeting everyone. This as much as the interest in food makes the lap around the store more promising. And looking ahead, makes me think that Dec might actually be able to take Bear to school someday.

Alerts

Bear gives Dec about a third of the bed.

Bear gives Dec about a third of the bed.

Bear is alerting more often. He is keen to the signal that the glucose meter means someone might be low. So he always signals the person checking blood sugar, which is not a bad strategy for Bear, but the timing is all wrong for us. The kids have not had many night time lows recently, and this remains the blind spot for Bear’s signaling. If only I could be ninja-like, sneaking into Dec’s room in the middle of the night, not waking Bear, and holding a scent-sample to his nose (after checking both Maggie and Dec to make sure they weren’t already low), then maybe we could get Bear’s heavy sleeping days behind him, and get him a bit more aware of potential low-scents in his area.

Litter-mate

Bear got to meet up with one of his litter-mates. They met at the river together, caught up on this and that, and traded new moves.

What to do?

Sunday afternoon down time.

Sunday afternoon down time.

Weekend rolls around again. Six AM and the chirping bark sounds from the far reaches of the basement. Bear still isn’t understanding the idea of the weekend. It is a time to sleep past six, maybe into the seven-o-clock hour. But I have to respect the signal. And as I rise from the fog of sleep I remember Declan got a shot before going to bed. Proportions and ratios and activity level in the afternoon come back to me. He was mid 400s before bed. He got a 2.5 unit shot to correct the 400. He had been with friends and had walked home before testing. It could be that the signal is a true-positive.

Kit and juice box in hand I navigate the dark stairs. First Dec and then Maggie. Dec was 328 and Maggie was 227, neither low. Trying not to reinforce to Bear that the chirpy bark means getting outside whenever he wants, I put him back up on Dec’s bed for what remains of sleep time.

Back up in bed, trying to steal a few more minutes of sleep as day approaches, I begin to wonder if Bear could have been signaling the high-blood sugar. Apparently the scent for the high is much stronger and more irritating than the low scent, and most dogs begin picking up on the high-scent on their own. Could he have been signaling the high-scent? If so, couldn’t he have signaled it much earlier? Or was Bear just beginning to stir from sleep and realized there was a high-scent and so he signaled, simultaneously realizing that his bladder was full.

Because Bear still hasn’t mastered English, and also because I haven’t picked up on the nuances of a high- or low-blood sugar-scent, these questions, I’m afraid, will never be answered. However, I continue to question how react to all this uncertainty.

Soccer

A game each morning this weekend, and Heather brought Bear along to both of them. With enough exercise before first whistle, Bear is able to stay in a “down” for the game. He acts more like an adult dog now.

At half-time of the game on Sunday Dec was 50 and had about six sugar tabs before getting back in the game in the second half. After the game Heather said that Bear was really well behaved except for right before halftime. Not sure how we can coordinate it, but we need to somehow communicate the misbehaving of Bear not only to check on Dec (or Maggie), but also to reward Bear for signaling.

Sure enough

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Bear waits quietly to eat while Jelly finishes drinking from his water bowl.

The single bark came in the middle of the night. I only know if was before three in the morning. I jumped from bed after the high-pitched single bark. Through bleary eyes I saw Bear standing at the office door, looking back at me. Deciphering the scene in the dark I saw child gate blocking the doorway and thought Bear just needed to go outside. I ignored Bear and he quickly settled back down, wanting to avoid the crate that he gets placed in for being a belligerent puppy.

Bear leaps into the river.

Bear leaps into the river.

Back in bed I briefly debated the single high-pitched bark. Bear must have just needed to go outside since the gate was up. Turns out the gate wasn’t up. Not sure how much time passed, but I woke again, this time from Maggie in the kitchen, drinking juice and getting a snack ready for after her low. Not really after her low, as she just starts eating after she downs the juice. It being three in the morning, I withhold my lecture about waiting to eat the snack until re-testing blood sugar. Instead I quietly admonish myself for not heeding Bear’s signal.

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Asking if it is alright to eat, or if he should continue waiting.

Maggie stabilized and Bear spent the rest of the night on his couch. I finished the night in fits of sleeping thinking about the damage I can do to Bear’s training, and how much more quickly he could be trained if it weren’t for me.

River

On a brighter subject, the clear crisp weather has kept the river a great place to take Bear. And mid-day scent training continues.

Walking the mean paths of Riverfront park.

Walking the mean paths of Riverfront park.

Enjoying the river

Out of bed and it’s still dark. jammy bottoms, down jacket, and old sneakers on, ready for the morning walk. Dragging in the beginning, force Bear in a short leash walk. Bear takes a long pee. I count to no less than 25 on the first pee of the morning. After a block I unleash him. We walk a loop.

But in the evening, if I get home in time, we’ll go to the river. And it is beautiful. And Bear runs off leash and retrieves sticks. And now he leaps off the squishy dock into the river.

Training

We continue to train with scent samples. Bear is improving with the scent sample. But not so good in the middle of the night. Last night Maggie woke up at 46 and had trouble getting up stairs. We all slept through it. Later on, Bear woke me at 5. We went down and checked Maggie. She had rebounded to 300 after treating the low on her own.

Lacking sleep

Catching up on some sleep.

Catching up on some sleep.

The new routine is in place. By 745 in the morning everyone is gone except for Declan and Bear. Declan leaves by 845. Then Bear is home alone until Grandma shows up for the middle of the day river walk. Declan is supposed to put Bear in his room before he leaves for school. We even put an alarm on Dec’s new phone to remind him to put Bear in the room. From the daily updates I get from Grandma, Bear has been successfully placed in his room three times.

Capture

Part of the new  routine is getting daily updates from Grandma. The updates not only report the whereabouts and the damage Bear has done when she arrives at the house, but they also include how things went at the river.

CaptureReading the text updates from school can be a bit nerve wracking as there is nothing I can do about it. I wonder what mess will be found when I get home. We still need to replace that shin guard. 

In contrast to the benefits of Grandma’s daily visits is Bear’s new night time schedule. Though he is exhausted at the end of the day from multiple walks and a lot of running at the river, Bear has trained himself to wake sometime around 2 AM. I believe the main objective for Bear is to take advantage of a few treats that are more accessible at 2 AM. First he goes to the kitchen pantry, looking for granola bars and chocolate milks that might be on a low shelf. Next Bear ventures to the counter for a jar of butter. Though no butter may be found, he can generally snag a spatula or spoon to chew on. After exhausting the plastic on the spatula, Bear saunters back to the bathroom to clean the cat food dishes.

Playing with Homer.

Playing with Homer.

The regularity of night barks has decreased Dec’s sensitivity and increased my sensitivity to middle of the night commotion. So now I hear Bear barking in the Dec’s room. I venture downstairs, letting him out and placing him in his crate. Then I lay in bed trying to go back to sleep, which is about the time I realize that Dec or Maggie might be low. After a brief debate with myself, recalling the bedtime blood sugar number and the previous evening activity, I rise from bed and descend the stairs again, this time with a kit to check blood sugars.

Initially Maggie and Dec’s blood sugars were fine. But now that I am the one letting Bear out of Dec’s room, I now remember to take a kit down and test them before putting Bear in the crate. And twice his night time routine has coincided with a low. Or, optimistically, he was signalling the low with his barking.

And there was another time this past week that he signaled Maggie as she came upstairs. But there have also been the times when Dec is low and Bear snoozes on, signaling only after we’ve checked the blood sugar and we’ve called him over to take a sniff, which is turning out to be a signal for Bear to signal. Not our intention, but we’re working on it.

Training

We continue scent training, though not as much. More of the training is finding the scent now. I’ll hide the scent while Bear is in a stay. I’ll release Bear and then follow him around while he sniffs it out. Yesterday Bear did great sniffing out the sample. It was interesting to see him go past the sample, slow down, circle around, and then quickly zero in on it.

The smoking probably isn't helping the scent training.

The smoking probably isn’t helping the scent training.

When possible I hide the scents in someone’s pocket, or in a sleeve. I believe this will condition Bear to associating the scent with a person and signaling the person. After successfully signaling Dec after sniffing out the sample in his pocket, Bear kept going back to Dec and signaling. I’m giving Bear the benefit of the doubt on this one. I think he was smelling remnants of a low that Dec had earlier in the day. I don’t think Dec smelled like a low, but I believe his clothes still had the scent.

Initially I thought training Bear in our house would be easier because there are two people with diabetes. I now think that it would be easier to train him in an environment with no one with diabetes. It is much easier to control when the scent is out and when the training is occurring without any lingering low-scents showing up unexpectedly.