Service dogs are being trained to alert to everything from allergens, seizures and autoimmune flare ups to blood sugar changes and much more. Alerts are the most exciting area of growth in the field of service dog training, and also the most mysterious.
While alert-training has been expanding, there is a long history of training service dogs to alert. Hearing dog work is one of the more well-known and established types of alert-training. A hearing dog touches his or her owner with a nose or paw to make the owner aware of a sound in the environment, such as a person knocking on the door. In hearing dog work, the sound is the cue for a behavior. Guide dogs alert their owners to changes in the environment by changing their behavior, for instance, a guide dog alerts his or her owner to the presence of a curb by stopping walking. The owner feels the change in the dog’s movement through the harness. Some programs that train dogs for people with mental illness, train dogs to alert owners to subtle changes in their body language that indicates anxiety. A dog may be trained to touch the owner with a paw when the owner starts to tap his or her foot nervously. The owner can then take action to address his or her anxiety before it escalates.
In these cases, the cue for the dog’s behavior is clear, it is the presence of the curb, a sound, the tapping foot. Trainers know what the dog needs to respond to. For other alerts, however, it is much less clear. For example, what is the cue for the seizure-alert dog? Is it an odor? A change in the owner’s body language? Some subtle change in the owner that we do not perceive? How can we recreate that for training purposes? In the case of dogs working with people with seizures, many service dog programs have focused primarily on training dogs to respond to a person’s seizure by getting a caregiver, bringing medication or retrieving a phone, rather than alerting per se.
Much of the alert work in the service dog industry is focused on scent work right now. Trainers who are training dogs for diabetic alert often use scent samples of the owner’s saliva when the owner has confirmed changes in his or her blood sugar.
The consequences of an alert dog failing to do his or her job properly can be very serious and sometimes even life threatening. Many programs recommend that owners use medical devices as well as the dog, for instance, a person with diabetes would use a Continuous Glucose Monitor as well as the diabetic alert dog. Technology is growing in leaps and bounds, there are now devices for food allergens and even an app for seizures.
Medical devices undergo testing and clinical trials before claims can be made about how effective or reliable they are. The training of alert dogs has outpaced the research. Objective research on alert behaviors is minimal and in many areas, completely non-existent. For now we have more questions than answers. Science-based dog trainers as well as those looking for the help of a service dog need to be cautious when interpreting subjective claims about alerting behavior.
Interested in looking at the research yourself? The National Library of Medicine, PubMed portal is a great resource. Enter terms like service dog, diabetic alert dog or seizure alert dog in the search.