Meet Medical Mutts
Dogs are a hot topic in diabetes! You’ve heard about what a diabetic alert dog (DAD) does, how to choose a DAD, and what it takes to train a DAD. Now Dr. Jennifer Cattet is here to share her knowledge and expertise as the director of Medical Mutts, a program that rescues dogs from shelters and trains them how to be service dogs.
Dr. Cattet is a pioneer in the field of diabetes alert dogs alongside DAD expert Dr. Dana Hardin, and Beyond Type 1 was delighted to chat with her about how the future of DADs is changing with programs like Medical Mutts.
BT1: How did your interest in diabetic alert dogs begin?
Dr. Cattet: I used to be the director of training for ICAN, and at that time I was asked to start the diabetes alert program. Unfortunately, there were no diabetes alert dog programs in the country that I could find that could potentially share the information about how they train the dogs.
It was gaining in popularity, and we wanted to get involved. I started investigating the field and asking experts in scent detection how they thought I could go about doing that. In the process, Dana [Dr. Hardin] was volunteering for ICAN and I started talking more about diabetes. We hear a lot about diabetes and it’s almost become so common that we don’t know how difficult of a disease it is. Dr. Hardin really helped me see what people go through on a day-to-day basis and how difficult and dangerous this disease really is.
I really wanted to figure out a way to train the dogs as best I could and dive fully into it. The other thing Dr. Hardin brought to light for me is that several people were starting to get scammed by dog trainers who were either not knowing how to do it properly or selling them dogs that really couldn’t work. She really pointed out how there’s a big need for standardization in this industry and also to prove what was the best way to train these dogs so that we make sure that those who need them get well-trained dogs and the help they really need.
Dr. Hardin: There’s some rapscallions out there and they prey on patients in desperation. It’s disgusting to me.
Jennifer and I wrote an article called Diabetes Alert Dogs: Buyer Beware about how to pick a good trainer so you don’t get some of the scamming that goes on.
BT1: What makes Medical Mutts stand out?
Dr. Cattet: There are two types of organizations in the service dog industry: for profit and not-for-profit (Medical Mutts is a for-profit).
The differences for those who are looking for a dog is this: Not for profits may offer dogs for a very low cost and will generally fundraise to cover their expenses. The cost to the client receiving the dog can vary from $0-$25,000. Sometimes clients will be asked to help with fundraising.
For-profit companies will ask for the full cost of the dog to the client. The cost will range from $9,000-25,000. In this case, the clients often fundraise themselves to offset the cost of the dog.
There simply isn’t a cheap and quick way to make a DAD and if a company claims to do so, I would ask about their standards. In the same way, if their success rate with dogs is very high, in other words, if they advertise that 80%-90% of their dogs make it through their program, their criteria is probably too low.
It is not uncommon for a person to have to wait sometimes three to five years to get a dog and of course, the cheaper they are, the longer the wait. Getting a DAD is often very expensive and the wait can be long. For this reason, at Medical Mutts, we try to offer different options and also train owner dogs. In other words, if the person already has a dog and if that dog qualifies, we can either take the dog at our facility as a board & train or teach the person how to train their own dog. Those two options will be cheaper and quicker.
BT1: What do you look for in a dog that indicates it has the potential to be a working dog?
Dr. Cattet: First of all, we don’t take puppies. We take dogs that are well into their adolescence, between 1-3 years old. We look for behavior that is as close as possible to what we’re going to have at the end of the training.
We look for dogs that have a “friendly” look. When people start taking the dogs out in public, we don’t want negative reactions to the dogs. We’re looking for “Velcro dogs,” the dogs that are naturally going to stay around the person. The type of dog that follows you when you go to the bathroom. Those dogs are much more likely to pay attention to changes in the person’ physiology and be right there to alert.
With diabetes alert dogs, we’re talking about the ability to detect scent, and there is a physical aspect to that. The molecules have to reach the dog’s nostrils for the dog to be able to alert. If a dog is so independent that it’s perfectly okay hanging out in the other room, then the chances of those VOCs hitting the receptors in the dog’s nose are gonna be much decreased.
There is a good balance to find between dogs who want to be around their owner all the time and dogs that, when you take them out, are confident enough to do their work and not be scared of going into new environments.
BT1: How many dogs are successfully trained as service dogs?
Dr. Cattet: Even when organizations breed the dogs and select them from service dog lines, about half the dogs don’t make it as service dogs. So even in the best of conditions, with everything controlled there is a large number of dogs who don’t make it due to problem behaviors or health issues.
In shelters, we keep the same criteria. Our goal is the same as if we were working with bred dogs in the sense that the dogs have to be very well-behaved, should not interfere with other people’s lives or belongings when we go in public, etc. the criteria has to be kept very high and has to be the same. With shelter dogs, it’s mostly a matter of seeing enough dogs to find the gems that can do the job. We may go to shelters and see 200 dogs and walk out with nothing because none of the dogs fit the physical aspect or the age range or the temperament that you need.
It takes about four dogs that we test for every one dog that we place. By testing, I mean dogs that we selected, took out of the shelter, trained for a number of weeks, and then we decide whether that dog is gonna make it or not.
BT1: How long does it take before a dog is matched with a family?
Dr. Cattet: Our full time training is about six months. We use the standards set by the IAADP, the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners, which is a minimum of 120 hours of training, plus 30 hours of outing.
During those six months, they learn 30 different commands. Most have to do with being well-behaved out in public and being manageable. Others have to do with diabetes-related tasks: the alert, of course, but also learn to press a button on case the person wants to have an electronic system to call somebody else. They also learn to retrieve an object for people who will need the dog to go get glucose tabs or a phone or a drink if they don’t feel good. They learn to help them get up. They can go in the other room and find help, things like that.
BT1: Do you ever have to turn away a family that is not the right fit for a DAD?
Dr. Cattet: It’s all about the expectation: sometimes families expect the dog to take over some aspects of diabetes care, which would always be nice, but there is a lot of monitoring of the dog and a lot of learning once they have the dog.
Dr. Hardin: Families also have to think about their family dynamics, [for example], if they have other dogs. What is important is that families know that it’s still work, it’s still diabetes — the dog is a facilitator.
Dr. Cattet: We don’t leave the care of the dog in the hands of the children only unless they’re already at a certain age. Most of the time, it’s a matter of discussing what dogs can and cannot do and resetting expectations with the family.
BT1: What about those dogs that aren’t selected?
Dr. Cattet: They have already been selected for their good personality, and then they’ve received weeks of training with us. Sometimes they have to leave us after a week, sometimes we may keep them for three months before we decide they don’t fit the bill. They are very good dogs whether they stay with us or not.