Wildrose Diabetic Alert Dog Conference, 2012

Over eighty people sit around tables in the spacious auditorium, but the dogs are the first to catch the eye.  This is, after all, a conference about diabetic alert dogs.  Three small shelties stand on or around their colorful beds at the end of a table in the center of the room: one is gray with sable markings, another is black with a white, elongated triangle on the back of its neck and shoulders, and the third looks like a tan-and-brown miniature Lassie.  They are active, eager presences, very attentive to their owners seated next to them.

A friendly Doberman sleeps on her side, showing classic pointed ears, tan markings above her eyes, along the sides of her muzzle, and on all four legs. Through the door comes a shorthaired Weimaraner on long legs with a sleek milk chocolate coat.  Its active amber eyes dart about the room and to its female handler, silky ears flitting.

And, of course, there are labs.  Labs here.  Labs there.  Labs everywhere. In yellow, tan, black, and brown these British dogs range through all ages.  Docile and trained for public access, these mostly well-behaved medical assistants alert now and again, their handlers rewarding them for a job well done.

Occasionally, a bark rings in the air.  With so many dogs there are frequent trips out the glass doors at each side for breaks.

Wildrose’s fifth and largest diabetic alert dog conference—held on May 4, 5, and 6, 2012—met in a rural site just a few miles from the kennel. County Road 334 winds its way out of the southeast corner of Oxford, Mississippi.  After passing Lafayette County High School and through a mixed residential area, the two-lane road dips deep into farmland bottoms and quickly climbs up steep pine-and-hardwood-lined ridges, all the while bending and twisting, S-curve after S-curve.  These are the piney hills of Mississippi that Faulkner memorialized in his stories.  Atop one ridge—six miles out of town—Camp Lake Stephens punctuates the rural surroundings with a dozen or so rustic-looking buildings—an administrative building, a camp store, several campers’ cabins, a dining hall, and a chapel.  This last building is not a quaint, old-timey edifice with a bell tower.  It is, rather, the largest and newest structure in the complex, well appointed with facilities and techno-infrastructure.  Beyond the foyer a spacious auditorium is fronted by a wall-to-wall stage.

To begin the event that she organized, Rachel Thorton, Wildrose’s DAD Program Director, welcomed folks, gave her memorably poignant personal story, and presented a slide show introducing many of the participants.  Eighty-some attendees sat in folding chairs around four long rows of tables.  The group included young couples, families with small children, single individuals, and training teams of two or more. An assortment of dogs lay around or under the tables.  Other DADs rested in crates along the side and back walls.

Mike Stewart, Wildrose president and dog trainer extraordinaire, conducted the morning’s session.  People in the general public marvel at the idea of dogs alerting their diabetic partners to blood sugar changes; however, a central issue for all DAD families—besides handling the medical alert process—is dealing with the DAD as a dog, day in and day out.  These wonderful medical assistants are not machines with on and off switches, but rather they are living beings.  Not human beings, either.  They are canines that require basic obedience training and continuous monitoring.

Mike presented a training regimen that he has developed and fine-tuned over decades of dog-training experience.  (In a few months this training information will be available in the book that Mike developed with Orvis executive and writer Paul Fersen.)  At Wildrose all training programs—gundog, adventure dog, and diabetic alert dog—follow the same regimen in obedience fundamentals.  Mike presented several of the principles (including leadership, building confidence, and focus) and he illustrated a cyclical training method.  Following his presentation, he carried on conversations with several attendees, answering their questions and extending the discussion of achieving the essential skills with a DAD.

During the remainder of the day, participants worked in small groups, rotating through four sessions: Canine Good Citizen with Crystal Cockroft, Clicker Basics with Maureen Brown, Practical Scenting with Rachel Thornton, and Building a Bond through nose work and fun, with Mary Griffin and Sarah Barnes.

As usual the conference had sumptuous comfort food (barbecue for lunch and chicken spaghetti for dinner).  Plus, participants also took advantage of several one-on-one coaching sessions during lunch and afternoon break times.  Kids had their own fun, as well, with supervised play at kick ball, slip and slide, and freeze tag.

On Sunday morning Rachel spoke on the rights and responsibilities of DADs, emphasizing public access issues.  Careful attention to obedience was the topic when Wildrose Associate Trainer Jay Lowry gave his Sunday morning presentation on eye contact and close heeling.  Jay showed how he works with his dogs, bringing Greta, Tess, and Zeke on stage.  Following Jay’s impressive presentation, folks divided into four smaller groups where Jay, Mike, Trainer Mary Griffin, and Associate Trainer Sarah Barnes served as instructors to assist them in this skill work.   So, obedience was a central interest at the conference this year.

A Sunday afternoon session garnered an enthusiastic response: Lauren Hinsman, Wildrose Trading Company Manager, discussed health, nutrition, and exercise.  A very knowledgeable dog professional, Lauren discussed health and wellness for dogs, including grooming, food, safety, first-aid and other fun topics.  She also answered several questions from individuals in the group.

At mid-afternoon, as most folks packed up and headed for home, more time was available to interested people in practical application and Q and A sessions.

Rachel added a new and much-appreciated feature to this year’s program: a pre-conference session for trainers.  This small, informal session took place on Friday afternoon at Wildrose’s Super Learner Center.  After self-introductions around the table, Rachel set a lively discussion going with a presentation called, “Some Things Work, Some Things Don’t.”  As she discussed the components of preparing a DAD (obedience, socialization, and scent work), Rachel introduced the complex tasks involved in training a DAD and matching it with a family.  Attendees weighed in throughout the presentation with earnest questions and honest (and often humble) opinions.  These thirty or more folks, including many who were strangers before the session, found a common bond in their concerns to develop effective DAD training methods to meet the large client demand.

The consensus was that this last and largest Wildrose DAD conference was the best.  Several participants offered their comments on the program.  They appear below.  An accompanying post, “2012 DAD Conference Picture Gallery,” displays images from the conference.

Cherice Whitehead said, “We look forward to the DAD conference every year. It’s always a time of learning and encouragement. This year was a success in my book!

“It always inspires me to see the new teams working, learning, and growing together. I also love to see the veteran teams again. It’s just amazing to see a dog and handler grow and work together so much better. These teams can learn so much from each other and the friendships made are like no other.

“Something new at the clinic this year I really enjoyed was the extra training sessions teams could sign up for during ‘off’ times. I really appreciated the individual attention available from these trainers. Having a problem that wasn’t in the majority could be addressed there and it was very helpful for us. We learned a lot and left each session motivated and with a better mindset to move forward with our DAD.

“We were also glad to be a part of group discussions with two moms sharing how they have dealt with their DADs and what they have done to be so successful. This year we came home with new strategies and a new enthusiasm to work though some of our kinks. I am so thankful they were willing to share their stories for the benefit of others.”

Maureen Brown reported, “I came to the Diabetic Alert Dog conference as a positive reinforcement trainer knowing there would be a diverse group of trainers using a variety of methodologies to train DADs. I felt self conscious, and a bit worried showing up at Wildrose with my clicker in hand and treat bag on my belt. I found myself wondering how I would be received. What impacted me most this weekend, was the amount respect that existed between the variety of trainers, the open exchange of information and ideas, and the ability to take training knowledge from others and make it work for me in a way that I feel comfortable with. Only with this type of open dialogue can we ever hope to improve the world of dog training and improve the training of Diabetic Alert Dogs and the quality of life for people living with Diabetes, which we are all so passionate about.

“I immensely enjoyed getting to know some of the staff and volunteers at Wildrose Kennels as well as other trainers and participants at the conference.”

Lisa Kelly: “Liam and I were very excited to finally meet Rachel after ‘knowing’ her only via phone and internet. She had been a part of our journey since the beginning. We had so many questions for this weekend; our training for Max had been ‘unique’ and at times difficult. It was a thrill to drive up and see the Wildrose gates and be greeted by the chorus of happy labs. I was in awe of the room filled with trainers, who were coming together without ego or pretension to truly learn, share, collaborate on how to make DADs better. I had been praying and hoping for this sort of experience. Our previous experience has been one flavored by ego, financial gain, and unwillingness to learn new ideas about dogs or diabetes management. So being at WR was like coming to Mecca for us—the highlight in searching for the Holy Grail of DAD training and experience. It was so refreshing to hear the perspective that we don’t know all that is going on—although scent is certainly a key component in how the dogs alert. To hear the humbleness and dedication of all who gathered had a tremendous impact on me before we even did one training exercise with our dogs!

“Friday afternoon was an amazing time to share ideas—I was a bit distracted since we had been traveling all through the night. We came straight from the airport and Liam was going high with BGs in the high 200s and Max on constant alert. The combination of the southern climate (which us pacific Northwesterners don’t do well in) time changes and excitement presented us with a challenge—however we were met with supportive, caring people. The beauty of the facility was much more than what you can see on the website. The dog demos were incredibly impressive. I have an appreciation for all the hours of training that went into what we saw—it was wonderful.

“Besides wanting to have the best training to help Liam’s dog, Max, another reason I wanted to attend was to meet people that would also be interested in doing research to prove the efficacy of using DADs as an aggressive diabetes management tool for tight control. This thought has been at my heart for a couple of years now—it was what inspired me to start my foundation Dogs for Cures. In talking to others with experienced DADs, I know this to be true…. but to hear the testimony of those with very young children and what their amazing DADs do really was emotional. I expected that it could be, but watching over and again these beautiful dogs grabbing the bringsels holding them out for the moms was intense and bittersweet. Diabetes is hard no matter what the age—such a burden, no vacations from it, and all of us who gathered were fighting it every single day. Fighting for our children, our loved ones, doing whatever needs to be done—

Saturday we broke into our groups to learn on specific topics. It was very helpful and encouraging to be supported by so many different ways to help get your DAD to reach their potential. I appreciated that we had a chance to work on many facets of what make a complete DAD. Max had some challenges as he was so ‘nosy’ alerting to others who were out of range around us—this hasn’t been much of an issue, but it was great to get feedback on some ideas to improve his focus in real time. If you ask Liam, probably the highlight of this day was the coaching session with Mike Stewart. He told Liam that he had observed them during the day and could see that Max wasn’t focused on Liam. He suggested some equipment changes (different collar/leash) and then they went to work. Max is a spirited dog and as Liam handed off the leash to Mike, I wondered what would happen. Mike understood Max’s previous training had been more like a narcotics K9. He knew just the timing and intensity that Max would bring and met them head on. In a matter of minutes, Max was licking his lips, looking up at Mike, and seemed to fully understand who was the leader. I thought this is awesome…now what will happen when Liam takes the leash? As a teen with T1 and ADD, Liam faces challenges on many levels—but Mike told Liam he had to get eye contact with his dog, be precise, and be the leader. Mike let Liam know when he was being sloppy that Max would take advantage of him and I think that message finally got through to Liam. Max has been great on alerts (hard alerts that get Liam’s attention), but sometimes he can be a knucklehead. Mike gave Liam the tools and instruction to take that control back. It was exciting to watch the transformation and Liam’s confidence grow. After his coaching session with Mike, he decided he wanted to take the CGC. I sat on the porch in a rocking chair with Mike watching—each item they did well on, Mike commented, ‘good for them’—we then had to go behind the building during the last item for three minutes. Liam was so thrilled to hear that he had passed. ‘Thank you, Mike.’

“We also met Crystal and had a coaching session with her. She was excellent and compassionate. She spoke to Liam and I about getting Max a hobby, like rally to help build the bond and prevent burn out. Crystal had a great way of breaking down into steps behaviors she was looking for in the DADs. It was fun to watch the group go through the course she had set up and you could see that the dogs loved her and Michelle. We had great conversations with several of the teams. It was incredible to be with so many like-minded people in an environment of nonjudgmental sharing. We especially enjoyed time with Chris Floyd who was working Roscoe. He was incredibly ‘cool’ for Liam to hang out with since there weren’t many teen boys. They talked about everything from dogs to diabetes tattoos and he just ‘got it’ or as Liam put it, ‘he had street cred.’

“Sunday came all too fast. We enjoyed hearing some of the scent ideas from Rachel, working again with Mike, Mary and Sarah. Jay’s presentation was heartfelt and incredible, and I needed Kleenex! One of the best presentations was Lauren’s—it was well organized with a wealth of suggestions on products to use, which was so appreciated since often those recommendations are based on making a commission not on what is most appropriate.

“The take away from WR DAD Conference 2012 is not only are our DADs amazing, furry CGMs changing the lives of our beloved T1s— but the people behind these dogs are true heroes in the war against this dreadful disease. Sharing information is powerful because when we can work together assimilating many different ideas and approaches we can get a better DAD—this in turn keeps their “person” healthier and in the end that is the goal and desire of each one of us.”

Scott Smith: “The May 2012 Conference was the second Wildrose DAD Conference I have attended. As expected, I was able to take away a few new ideas from the presentations that were given. Having the opportunity to observe so many teams working together over the course of a weekend is a huge learning experience for me. Watching a dog alert for the first time, seeing a young lady make significant progress in an area she was struggling with, seeing the expression on a mother’s face as her dog alerts when her daughter is in another room, finally talking with someone I have been working with for months and reconnecting with people I hadn’t seen in a year. Well, that’s just the icing on the cake. I’m already looking forward to the next one!”

Chris Floyd: “The DAD conference was a terrific experience.   I am committed to using my knowledge and experience with diabetes to help others, and I was thrilled to learn about the DAD program.  Through the conference, I hoped to learn more about DAD programs across the country and how I could maximize my contribution to the training process.   The conference went beyond my expectations.  I learned so much about what to do/what not to do in training the DAD dogs and I got to meet and talk with diabetics who’ve been DAD handlers for much longer than I have.  I felt extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to spend time with the DAD handlers and so many trainers.  It was an invaluable experience and I look forward to next year’s conference.”

Patty Wood: “The opportunity to learn from experienced trainers and DAD owners was invaluable.  It was a delight to be acquainted with such dedicated dogs and dog lovers.”

Brent Brooks: “I was privileged to attend the 2012 DAD Training Conference at Wildrose Kennels a week ago.  As a professional Labrador breeder/trainer, I came away highly motivated, encouraged and energized.  As a relative newcomer to this training niche, I was eager to meet other trainers who had already placed successful DAD dog/handler teams.  My hope was to glean from their experience and knowledge base, and to fill in the gaps in my knowledge.

“I was not disappointed.  Rachel Thornton was very gracious, and made a point of introducing me to other trainers that came to the conference.  She shared her inspirational story, and the many lessons she learned as a pioneer in the DAD training arena.  In the span of a few short years, she has progressed from being a mom without dog training experience to a highly respected dog trainer with deep insight and a passion to help others produce high-quality Diabetic Alert Dogs.  Visiting with other trainers, it was helpful to compare training models, methodologies and philosophies.

“Getting acquainted with existing DAD dog/handler teams was extremely valuable, and it was inspirational to see those teams in action.  Those teams will be valuable resources to trainers like us, and we look forward to benefitting from their own experiences with dogs in service.

“I particularly appreciate a discussion regarding use of volunteers who are diabetics themselves.  The concept of using these diabetic volunteers to help the prospective DAD make the transition to live alerts makes a lot of sense.   This model allows us to proof the dog in advance of placement, documenting the dog’s success with BG logs and the corresponding alerting log of the DAD-in-training.

“We spent considerable time (as trainers) discussing appropriate screening of DAD candidates.   Integrating a service dog into the already busy (and stressful) lifestyle is not realistic for many diabetics or their families.   Not every family is prepared for the level of responsibility or commitment to continued training necessary for a successful DAD dog/handler team.  As trainers, we all agreed that proper pairing of DADs and diabetic candidates was crucial.

Collectively, the volume of DAD inquiries we have all received is enormous.   In the case of Brooks Labradors, 115 candidates have completed our online Questionnaire in 5 months…  Simply screening and following up on these inquiries is somewhat overwhelming.  Long term, there may be merit in some national-scale database of DAD candidates to facilitate matching of suitable candidates with reputable trainers in their own region.

“We also discussed how non-profit organizations will play a big role in making DADs available to the people who need them.  Professional trainers are generally for-profit businesses… which means that to stay in business, we can’t be ‘upside down.’  So ultimately trainers will need to be able to set price-points where they need them to be (to stay in business).  At the same time, the net cost to the diabetic needs to be at a level that they can feasibly afford.  The only way close that gap is with the help of non-profit organizations.

“We’re grateful to Mike Stewart, Rachel Thornton and the staff of Wildrose Kennels for their hospitality.   I look forward to building on our new trainer relationships.  Collectively we have the opportunity to significantly enhance the safety and quality of life of diabetics and their families.  It’s a great job for great dogs, and I left the conference feeling like we’re now networked with other ethical trainers who share our heart to make a difference.”

Mary Griffin, Wildrose Trainer: “I wasn’t really sure what to expect with the DAD conference, seeing as I’d never before participated in anything quite like it. I figured it would be similar to the other Wildrose seminars that I’ve been able to be a part of: a couple lectures on the basics, several small groups practicing hands-on tasks, lots of people and lots of dogs. The weekend did, indeed, include these things, but in a MUCH different atmosphere than what I was used to. Dogs of many different breeds, sizes, and ages were accompanying people that were themselves all very different from each other. Among the mix of people and dogs were trainers, established teams of diabetic and service dog, new teams with a trained dog, new teams with a young and inexperienced dog, dedicated volunteers, those considering getting a DAD, and a BUNCH of children! It was bound to be an interesting, yet unforgettable weekend. The weekend began with a ‘Train the Trainer’ session Friday afternoon. All the trainers met together to discuss their backgrounds in training (from working with other service dogs, accelerate detection dogs, clicker training and more), and why one would or would not want to train a DAD dog. This was, personally, my favorite part of the weekend. Being a trainer myself, I always find it extremely intriguing to hear other training opinions, views, and ideas. Saturday and Sunday included several group lectures as well as small ‘break-out’ sessions to do hands-on work.

“The large group lectures covered areas of extreme importance that applies to every trainer and DAD team, and the smaller hands-on groups allowed everybody to practice different skills and tasks with their dogs. Some of the small groups included beginning stages of scent work, clicker training, rally obedience, adventure dog training, basic obedience and focus training, and more. The smaller sessions also allowed some of the team members to get assistance if they had a problem area with their dog, such as eye contact, not pulling on the leash, barking, etc. All of this information and training in such a short weekend meant exhausted people, and even more exhausted dogs.

It was very apparent on Sunday that everybody was about worn out, but SO much had been learned for both person and dog.

“It was certainly an experience of a lifetime, and I’m very excited to see what next year’s conference will entail.”

Sarah Barnes, Wildrose Associate Trainer: “It was really good to see lots of new people there!  We had some new teams and lots of trainers/breeders interested in the program.  It was also really good to see some of our seasoned teams come back and visit and share their experience with everyone!

“Compared to last year we had a LOT more people attend the conference!  It was especially nice to see so many trainers and breeders interested in the DAD program.

“It was very hot and humid! I think everyone (dogs, kids, and parents) went home exhausted.

“The big difference between last year and this year was the demographics of attendees.  Last year the majority of our attendance was either DAD teams or people waiting to get matched with a dog.  This year there were lots of trainers and breeders that were interested in the program.  To me that is a huge indicator of the success rate of the Wildrose Diabetic Alert Dog Program.”

Ann Walling: “Melanie Del Villaggio, Patty Wood and I traveled to Oxford with the expectation of learning more about the new adventure that we are starting.  We will soon open a program for training diabetic alert dogs based on a model that is very different from that of Wildrose.  We will teach diabetics to train the dogs they already own to alert them to hypoglycemia.  Since we will not be raising or selling dogs, our approach is quite different.

“Having said that, we found ourselves among kindred spirits whose goal is to alleviate the stress of living with diabetes through a canine companion.  The dogs become an early warning system for their owners offering both companionship and protection to their handlers.

“We were fortunate to be able to observe diabetic alert dogs at work.  We heard presentations that expanded our knowledge of training and lifestyle issues connected to diabetic alert dogs.  We are in the process of incorporating some of our learning into our program.

“A key benefit of such a conference is shared experience.  I wish we had had more time to exchange ideas and share experiences, but maybe that will come next time.”

Debby Kay: “I was not quite sure what to expect but what I experienced was way beyond anything I could have imagined.  To kick off the event we heard the story of Rachael Thornton and I was moved and motivated in a way that is difficult to put to words.  There is a whole emotional level to the experience of the DAD triad that you don’t know about until you are part of it.  The bond and silent communications that exist between the DAD, the diabetic and the trainer is unlike anything in the dog world I have experienced. It goes way beyond the normal canine human bond, way beyond the training of a top competition, even beyond that of other service dogs. Thanks to Rachael and the kind folks at Wildrose we were able to share the experiences of these people and their dogs. For me as a trainer just starting into the DAD arena it was the inspiration and motivation I needed to clarify just what I can do to help. It was obvious that much thought and a dose of learning by trial and error has led to a highly successful DAD program at Wildrose.  I am grateful to them for a wonderful experience of a lifetime.”

Lisa Mayer: “My overall impression was that most of the first time attendees enjoyed the conference and learned things they didn’t know about the DAD world.

“I witnessed some fabulous alerts by Drake (Tom Arsenault) and by Ruby (Faith Wilson) and Charlie (Lily Simonton) as well as Juniper (Megan De Haven).  As long as I have been involved in this program (almost three years now), seeing these dogs working and alerting never fails to move and amaze me.

“I think most attendees left the conference feeling invigorated and inspired with new knowledge.”

Laurie Schwartz: “As I stand in the back of the room and watch the conference unfold, the intense gratitude I feel for the opportunity to be present at the conference overwhelms me.  People from all walks of life, all regions of the country, and tremendous differences of opinion regarding dog training and diabetes management coming together to learn and share.  Diabetic Alert Dogs as an industry is in its infancy and all those in attendance are searching, seeking, striving for knowledge from their past journeys and current life experiences to put the training puzzle together now and in the future better and more accurately.  All those in the room are standing on the efforts and building on the efforts that Rachel Thornton and Mike and Cathy Stewart have expended and continue to offer.

“Having the extreme good fortune to witness Rachel’s passion and struggles gives insight to the extreme hardship the conference causes in its planning and execution but also the understanding of her optimistic and altruistic dedication to this gift she continues to share to all those in attendance.  Wildrose DAD Conference number five has 12 organizations represented and over 80 attendees and the widespread impact that this conference continues to have on the diabetic alert dog community will never truly be understood…”

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