We are blessed at Chichester Secure Dog Park to meet lots of interesting people and families, in this Blog we wanted to share with you the unique story of Tom, Emma, James & Pippa.
In this fascinating interview I discover how this family have learned to integrate a failed explosive detection dog into their lives.
Eighteen months ago James was diagnosed as having T1 diabetes, so Tom, Emma and James have been searching for ways to manage his condition in a way that feels right for them.
I say right because James feels as if having something permanently on, or in him is not the way he wants to go, enter Pippa!
What lead you to explore using a dog to help James?
"Netflix" replies Tom! We all laugh as we recall the series on Netflix simply called 'Dogs' in one episode it tells the story of girl who suffers with epilepsy and an American family who take a dog on to alert them to epileptic fits. Emma started to research the potential for dogs to be trained to detect when blood sugar levels are getting to high or low and found an organisation in the UK NASDU that specialises mainly in military dog training who could help.
Tom adds " Pippa is of gun dog heritage but they picked up she wasn't going to work as a gun dog, so was tried on explosives but didn't have the search pattern or was inquisitive enough, so she ended up on diabetes because she's very good with people".
I asked about how important it is to recognise fitting the dog to the task, rather than fitting the task to the dog and Emma replied " The trainer Simon Mallin explained to us the litters are fostered out for about a year and then assessed for what their personality traits are, in Pippa's case it's food, which for an explosives or narcotics dog is not ideal". She further added "That matching the dog to the task is also important, so do they enjoy chasing people across a field, or sniffing rows of cars for scents?"
Is Pippa the finished article ?
"No. It's an ongoing life time commitment" says Tom. "So for example we take sweat and saliva samples from James when he is high or low and we freeze those for training purposes". During the school holidays James is having enough high and lows from various activities so he is the live sample and Pippa is alerting to 75 or 80% of the time. Emma adds "Even though we are only three months in she is alerting as much as possible. During the day James can tell if he's feeling a bit off, so it's fascinating to watch that we are aware something is going on so James will have a cuddle or a play with her and her nose goes like the Bisto advert, twitch, and she immediately signals - get the treats out!"
There are "Other times when she will start scrabbling at James to get the treats out, to Pippa he smells different, and we'll ask him if he feels off and he'll say no, we do the blood sugar test and he's out of range". Emma continues "So she is alerting at those times when we wouldn't have noticed, so she is doing her job".
Emma went on to explain that as time goes on she will get better as the food reward is so strong in her that she will become more like an early warning system avoiding having to work harder to get James back into range.
What's the next challenge for you and Pippa?
Emma outlined that Pippa's personality ( the people pleaser ) means she's a "Bit to polite" which means alerting at night time needs to be made acceptable to her. This is going to require Emma and Tom to somehow smuggle the dummy pheromones on to James in the small hours of the morning to help Pippa understand she can signal at night to.
Recall is also anther area Emma feels that they need to work on with Pippa. She was honest enough to admit that as "not so confident adult dog owners having the secure dog field means if she does see birds we know we can get her back". One hindrance is treats cannot be used to reward Pippa as thats s essential for the alerting of James.
What's living with Pippa like?
"She has fitted right into the family" says Emma " and the Cat is definitely in charge". She went onto explain that her job as a medical assistance dog is one of the hardest. The reason for this is most working dogs are given a command that they follow but Pippa has to make independent choices, meaning she can interrupt "what we are doing, it's really important she doesn't worry about doing something wrong. In the event she does start bin raiding we can't start shouting at her".
How does having Pippa part of James' overall care plan make you feel?
Tom and Emma explained that they see Pippa as a complementary part of they day to day care James needs. As with any animal they can have off days or get a cold meaning she can't smell. Emma recently read an article "where achieving 80% effectiveness in alert dogs is the gold standard and that's pretty much where she is at". Emma freely admits that without Pippa they would not be a dog family, instead rescuing cats but Pippa brings much happiness to Ella as well, James' sister who once Pippa is trained will get her own puppy.
Tom makes it clear that Pippa is James' dog so he has to take primary responsibility for her, including play time, poo time and walking time. He also says that as a family they need to back off if Pippa gets too friendly which is hard keeping in mind she is a working dog and not a pet.
I asked James whats it like looking after Pippa?
He started by explaining it's really important that he looks after her to make sure they have a really good bond, that includes walking and feeding her."The best thing about having Pippa is rather than sitting in playing Xbox or watching YouTube I know I need to get out walking with her". Finally I asked what he thinks he'll be doing with Pippa in 5 years? He said " I hope there is a cure for Diabetes ".