An Improvisational Dog Story

Things were getting fuzzy for Judith at the grocery store. Her 2-year old Golden Retriever, Citka, was jumping on her, mouthing her arm, trying to pull her off the electric cart (she is safer on the floor when things get this way), and a saleswoman nearby was very upset, thinking this was a badly-behaving service dog. But there wasn’t anything wrong with Citka, he was doing his job by doing everything in his power to tell Judith there was something wrong. Judith is hypoglycemic, her blood sugar was dropping rapidly, and amidst the commotion from the 80-pound dog and the saleswoman’s disapproval, Judith’s friend quickly gave her a glucose shot which started to correct her blood sugar. By the time the ambulance came, Citka was calm – laying down next to Judith’s electric cart like nothing had happened.

“It was like a key being turned off. [he was like] okay, i did my job.”

Citka is Judith’s diabetic alert dog, and using the Service Dog Academy‘s positive reinforcement training methods, he has become more than a “thinking dog,” but an improvisational dog – coming up with creative ways of alerting Judith to unexpected drops in blood sugar, and stopping at nothing until she does something about it. One of our first diabetic alert 101 class graduates, Judith has been a champion of our groundbreaking train-your-own diabetic alert dog program and is always eager to tell us about the latest crazy thing Citka has done. Not giving up is his job, and while sometimes it may seem disruptive or “knuckleheaded,” the improvisational dog is designed to save lives.

Citka is trained to alert Judith to several medical situations, by pawing at her, bumping her with his nose, licking her face, retrieving her meter, and getting help using methods recognized by the American Diabetes Association – but those are just a small portion of what he has done to save her life. At a recent visit to JoAnn Fabrics and Crafts in Port Orchard, Washington, her blood sugar started to drop, and Citka bumped her leg while she was heading to the cutting counter. She ignored his alert – and continued to the cutting counter. Not taking no for an answer, Citka jumped up onto the counter. If her can’t get Judith’s attention he will get someone else’s, so he bumped the woman at the counter with his nose. This was serious – and Judith knew if she didn’t do anything to correct her blood sugar, Citka would persist. An employee who is familiar with the duo ran over and brought her a candy bar. The second Judith put the candy in her mouth, Citka jumped off the counter and sat by her side. “He’ll sit and watch me putting food in my mouth, and wont touch his treat until he sees food go in my mouth.” She adds, “[I ]didn’t teach him these things.”

In addition to alerting, Citka is trained to get juice out of the refrigerator, or candy from a candy bowl on her kitchen counter. However, during diabetic alert 101 at Service Dog Academy, he began nosing through her bag, only to emerge with a meter in his mouth, and started prancing around her – a clear signal to test her blood sugar, and although she was in normal range at the time, her blood sugar was beginning to drop.

Citka is also trained to get help when she asks him to, and has adapted that training to getting help when she ignores him. He will go to her husband, George, and pull on his shirtsleeve until he goes to her, in which case George will plead with her to test her blood sugar because “this dog is driving me nuts.”

One afternoon Judith decided to test how far Citka will go in getting help. He bumped her, letting her know she was going low, and she pushed him away. He left the room, and came back with her meter. She tested herself, and at 105, she waited. Citka pawed her, then put his mouth around her wrist and tried to pull her out of her chair. She pushed him away, and he left through the dog door. Just a short time later, Citka returned with George who was outside chopping and sawing wood with a chainsaw. Citka had to prance in front of him to get his attention. When he put down the chainsaw, Citka grabbed his shirt by the mouth and started tugging.

It is phenomenal how a reliable a well-trained, diabetic alert service dog will alert even in the middle of the night. In addition to Mary McNeight’s training, Citka learned “trial by fire,” Judith recalls. One evening she took her medication as usual, and tested her blood sugar before bed. The problem with the medication she had just taken was that it would cause her blood sugar to run false highs. Deep into sleep, with her former service dog, Maxine, and Citka sleeping nearby, her blood sugar crashed. The dogs woke up her husband, and pushed the alert button on the phone to notify the paramedics. Judith was in a 10-minute window and a blood glucose level of 26. Since then, it isn’t uncommon for Judith to wake up to Citka digging her out of her covers when her blood sugar begins to drop below 90.

Judith and Citka’s story is a great example of how The Service Dog Academy’s train your own diabetic alert dog program for hypoglycemia, type 1, and type 2 diabetes creates an “improvisational dog,” perceptive and ready to adapt to the situation. Citka has certainly demonstrated – much to Judith’s chagrin – that philosophy. “Mary has created a monster,” Judith says, referring to the antics and persistent alerting behavior from her service dog, but without Citka’s improvising and attention seeking antics, Judith says, “I would not be here today.”

In addition to Diabetic Alert Dog 101, the West Seattle dog training studio headed by professionally certified dog trainer, Mary McNeight, CPDT-KA also teaches adult dog and puppy obedience classes which help fund our low-cost service dog training program for people with disabilities. See what some of our other students from Service Dog Academy’s affordable train-your-own diabetic alert dog classes have to say about this unique program from the northwest’s best dog training school.

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