Dave LaBanc greets me with a firm handshake and a winsome smile. Dave is Wildrose’s newest DAD team member, and we are meeting in his office at the University of Mississippi’s Facilities Planning Building. A fit and trim man, Dave sports a military-style haircut—close shaven all around with a short brush crew on top.
A Type 1 diabetic, Dave has begun volunteering to “prove” Wildrose Diabetic Alert Dogs (DADs). After a DAD has been through obedience, scent, and public access training, it lives with a Type 1 diabetic to “prove” itself by practicing real-time alerting and living in a 24/7 family routine. When the proofing is complete, the DAD is ready to be placed with its client family.
Enter Finn, the two-year-old, yellow DAD from Luke and Tess that Dave is proofing. Finn is well traveled in the Wildrose Way, having been initially trained by Mary Griffin and Chelsea Harris. He then went to live with DAD volunteer Chris Floyd—until the Floyd’s brought home a new baby that naturally enough took over their priorities. So, Dave arrived just in time to take over Finn’s proofing activities.
Well, there’s an interesting word-of-mouth story about how Dave arrived on the scene. Many folks in the Wildrose community know that President Mike Stewart has a military and law-enforcement background. In fact, he served eighteen-and-a-half years as Chief of the University Police Department (UPD) just prior to retiring to begin the Wildrose business.
Late last fall the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, Brandi Hephner LaBanc, hosted an appreciation dinner honoring the UPD staff and retirees. She and Mike sat at the same table and another tablemate, who knew about the Wildrose DAD program, mentioned that Brandi’s husband, Dave, was a Type 1 diabetic, whereupon Mike asked Brandi if she and Dave would be interested in field proofing the dogs.
Following the dinner when Brandi got home, she mentioned the conversation to Dave, who called Mike the next day. And as way leads on to way, Brandi and Dave soon participated in a Wildrose dog handlers’ workshop and they also shared with Mike their previous dog-training experience. Before their recent move to Oxford in 2012, the LaBancs got a rescue dog, Rudy, a red Doberman Pinscher, as their first family pet. Dave had grown up with dogs and he and Brandi enjoyed training Rudy. In fact, Dave set up a recreation room as an obstacle course and worked with Rudy on agility training.
So, that’s how Dave arrived on the scene to take over proofing activities with Finn.
Every day Finn goes to work with Dave, who is the Coordinator of Facilities Projects and Space Management at the University. As Dave explains below, not only does Finn stay at the office, but he also travels all over campus with Dave to site visits and meetings. Their favorite mode of transportation is the Club Car.
Finn stayed on place in Dave’s office during our interview. Here are Dave’s responses to my questions about his diabetes and his work with Finn.
Ben: Discuss the time of your diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes and what routine practices you developed to help cope with your disease. Mention any other autoimmune disease and its role in your health profile.
Dave: I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes on Labor Day weekend in 1995. When I was admitted to the hospital, my blood sugar was 998 mg/dl. This is pretty high, when you consider that the normal range for blood sugar is 80 – 120 mg/dL.
My diabetes educator assured me that there would be a cure in the next ten years. I do not know if she told me this to give me hope. Or if it means that her predicting abilities were as precise as your average weatherman. Anyhow, I was as overwhelmed as any other newly diagnosed diabetic, but I eventually settled into a routine that included checking my blood sugar six to eight times a day and eating on a schedule, with snacks between major meals. Over time, I would test less, or eat worse, but for the last fourteen or fifteen years, I have been checking my sugar ten to twelve times a day and trying to be a healthier diabetic, but I still struggle from time to time.
Part of the reason for my occasional struggles is my other autoimmune disease, Wegener’s Granulomatosis, or Granulomatosis with Polyangiitis (GPA). This disease attacks my lungs, kidneys, and sinus cavities, if I do not keep it in check with Mexotrexate, a medicine many people suffering from autoimmune diseases take. Basically, the medicine knocks down the immune system a bit, so it cannot go after other targets. This is good for GPA, but it means I also need to take other medication to counter its effects.
I mention my other disease to help illustrate all of the things I have coursing through my veins and all of the other smells I probably give off. Not only is Finn able to sort through all of the other odors and distractions that any other D.A.D. must deal with, he is able to alert accurately with all of the additional complications brought on by my second disease.
Ben: When did Finn come to live with you?
Dave: Finn came to live with Brandi and me on Sunday, February 9, 2014. We have spent the last three weeks developing our relationships with Finn and learning to read each other. A relationship with a dog is really similar to a relationship with another human. You learn to pick up on the other’s tone of voice, gestures, and habits as you spend more time together.
Brandi helps a lot with Finn. She is actually the one that first caught on to his alerting when I thought he was just being disobedient. Her perspective really helped me get clued in to Finn’s intentions. I was so focused on making sure he behaved correctly, that I was blocking him from performing his job by continually returning him to his place, every time he moved off.
Ben: Describe Finn’s nature and some features of his character.
Dave: Finn is a wonderful dog! He will be an excellent DAD for some lucky diabetic out there.
Finn is energetic, very eager to please, strong willed, and determined. His greatest characteristic, other than his amazing nose, is his keen intelligence. For example, I was able to teach him to shake hands in three minutes. Then, I was able to convert “shake” into wave in ten more. He began to use “wave” for his high alert within a week of being taught to shake, albeit inconsistently. We are still working on it, but he is doing really well.
Ben: Discuss the system of communication between you and Finn, how you and Finn “read” each other.
Dave: I have no clue how Finn reads me. We train the DADs with saliva frozen in cotton swabs. When my blood sugar is high or low, I cut a Q-Tip in half and place both sides in my mouth and soak them with saliva. Then, I place the swab in a Ziploc bag and I place that bag in another Ziploc bag and then I write the blood sugar reading and the date on the bag. So, initially at least, Finn read me by how my breath and saliva smelled.
However, I think there is much more to it than how my breath and saliva smell. For example, this past Sunday, I was working in the yard and Finn was in the house with Brandi, since I try to separate from him for a few hours every day. This allows him to take a break from me and just be a dog. Anyhow, I was in the yard and he started alerting Brandi and became concerned or agitated and wanted to get to me. Brandi brought him outside and she brought me my meter. I tested and my blood sugar was 59. I was working on the side of the house on which there are no windows and Finn knew, somehow knew, that I was in trouble and he needed to help me. So much for Finn getting a break from me…
I continued working in the yard. He then alerted two more times while I was working in the back yard approximately 150 feet from the house where Finn was. I can believe that those two subsequent alerts might have been by smell, but during the first one I was using spray foam and that stuff stinks. If it is smell, he was able to pick it up through swirly wind bouncing off everything in the yard and he could discern my low blood sugar from the toxic smell for the spray foam.
I read Finn by his demeanor and the sounds he makes. His eyes give away his feelings. He has intense looks, fun looks, sad looks, frustrated looks, pleading looks, and loving looks. It is hard to describe, but the more I am with him the better able I am at reading what he is trying to communicate.
He rarely barks, but he does whimper from time to time. The intensity of that whimper means something to me. Some whimpers mean he doesn’t want to stay on his place anymore. Other whimpers mean he wants my attention. Still other whimpers mean he needs to go outside to relieve himself.
Ben: Briefly explain your daily routine with Finn.
Dave: We get up at 5:30 a.m. and I feed him two cups of food and give him water. Then, we go for a 20 to 25 minute walk. When we get home from the walk, Finn goes to his place, which is a little Kuranda cot in our bedroom, upon which he sleeps. Finn usually falls back asleep or relaxes while Brandi and I get ready for work.
We leave for work between 6:45 and 7:00 and generally go to Starbucks in the J. D. Williams library for some coffee. Then, we are off to our offices to work. Here in my office Finn has this place next to my desk, as you can see, where he spends most of his time, but he does go everywhere with me when I leave the office. If I have a meeting, he is under the table. If I need to go to a construction site and I do not have to climb ladders, he goes with me. I really try to expose him to as many situations as possible, so he will not be surprised by public access situations when he is serving his full-time owner.
I try to give Finn some time off each morning and each afternoon. Usually, I do this when I have a meeting in my building. I just tell him to “load” and he gets into his crate here in my office and takes a nap.
During lunch, if time allows, I take him to the recreation fields and we do field work, which involves walking on lead, holding and carrying items, staying where I place him, coming to me when I call his name, and his favorite—retrieves.
After work, Brandi and I go to the gym and Finn sits between Brandi and me while we work out. He does an excellent job in the loud, somewhat chaotic, environment. He focuses on me and lets me know when my blood sugar is out of range. Yesterday, I set my blood meter by him. As I was working out, he picked up my meter and brought it to me. I never worked with him on that behavior, but he seemed to learn that I always use my meter whenever he signals, so he decided to pick it up and bring it to me because he was signaling. By the way, my blood sugar was 54, so Finn saved me from crashing during the work out!
Ben: As the one who is doing the prooving work with Finn, what’s on your checklist as essential things to train in him?
Dave: Basic obedience behaviors: sit, down, stay, heel, load, out, get over, give (or dead), and quit (to turn off his alerts).
I also work on his diabetic alerts. I try to make his signals clearer and I continue to reward good behavior with praise and be neutral with incorrect alerts.
Ben: How do you rank him with respect to obedience, scent work, and public access behavior?
Dave: Finn is doing very well. The only reason I cannot say excellent is that he loves people. Sometimes it feels like he is flirting with humans to get them to pay attention to him. He needs to focus on his job and not worry about who is in the room, or who can love him.
We are also working on his interest in small furry animals. He is a retriever after all, so we need to make small furry animals something more common so that he does not want to run after them. He is getting much better in this regard.
Ben: How long do you project that you will work with Finn before he is placed with a diabetic client?
Dave: If the person he is placed with has had a big dog before, he could go now. If he is going to somebody who has never had a dog before, or has only had small dogs, I think I need him for another month. However, the real judges are Mike and Cathy Stewart and Sharon Stinson. They both have forgotten more about dog training than I know, so you will get a better sense of this from them. The other factor in this is if Finn is a match for the next
person to request a DAD, which is a call that Mike, Cathy, and Sharon make. My understanding is that Finn is the most trained of the available Wildrose DADs, but if he is not a match for the next client, then I will have him longer.
Following the interview, Dave and I took Finn and my gundog, Mac, to a recreation field on campus for a lively workout, including some long retrieves, which they heartily enjoyed. Loading Mac and Finn back in my truck boxes, we then made our way to the center of campus, met up with Brandi for a photo shoot and then went to two different construction sites where Dave examined the work and discussed details of the projects with the construction crew superintendents. While Mac dozed in his dog box, Finn happily accompanied Dave everywhere.
Click on each photo below to see an enlarged image.