the smell of my desperation has become a stench

Learn how your dog learns

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Last week I mentioned that I had a long talk with Coco’s trainer, one of the most down-to-earth and genuine people I’ve ever had the privilege of calling a friend. I originally got her name and number from a neighbor who was walking his 10-month-old Australian Shepherd down the street without the dog screaming as if it was being burned alive. He’d seen me attempting to walk an infant Coco a few times, so I asked him what drug he was using. He answered, “KC, her name is KC. She’s better than a drug.”

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One evening in the spring of 2008 KC walked through the front door. Chuck greeted her with a wagging tail and his usual proper silence, but Coco did what Coco did best: she let out a screech that you could package up and use to peel off four layers of wallpaper and tried to jump on top of her with all four paws. “SOMEONE IS HERE SO LET US CONVINCE THEM THAT THEY SHOULD NEVER RETURN” was pretty much Coco’s philosophy on meeting new people.

KC fended her off with one firm movement of her forearm, nodded a greeting at me, and then stood straight and still with her arms crossed over her chest. Chuck turned and walked over to sit next to the couch in the living room, but Coco continued to squeal. Several seconds passed, and the squealing soon gave way to sniffing. Coco sniffed her legs, then her shoes, then her legs again. KC said nothing and didn’t move a muscle. And then suddenly… Coco froze. I watched it all happen in slow motion… Coco very slowly lifted her head to look KC in the face, tilted her head as if to say, “Is this really what is happening?” and then ran like mad into the kitchen.

I was like, “Is this really what is happening?”

KC made quick pursuit of Coco, and just as she entered the kitchen she called out to me, “Uh oh, we got ourselves a puddle.”

Coco had run toward the back door in the kitchen and peed all over the floor.

Some of you may be thinking, “Awww! Poor thing! She was scared!” And that’s very sweet of you, but also very incorrect. What she was really thinking was, “CRAP! The Pack Leader showed up and is going to find out that I was sitting at her desk!”

KC’s presence alone had that effect. Over the next few weeks and months she’d come to the house and teach me how to command that respect from Coco. I never really achieved that same level of presence, I’m not sure many people can. KC is one of a kind. But she taught me enough that Coco transformed from an all-out maniac to a lovable lunatic with occasional maniacal tendencies.

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KC’s main passion is training diabetic alert dogs, canines who can sense when someone’s blood sugar levels are too high or two low and perform a visible warning. I caught up with KC recently thinking that I’d talk to her about training techniques, but the conversation started in a completely different and tremendous direction. I knew once I got her talking that I’d want to her tell stories for hours.

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I sat down on the couch in her living room, and immediately her Chocolate Lab named Radar crawled into my lap.

KC: See? This is my personal service dog. And he has amazing abilities to pick up on what’s going on with people. He doesn’t normally crawl into people’s laps. He’s like, “Aw, you’re sad, I’ll make you feel better.”

Me: Yeah, I’m sad. I don’t know what to do.

KC: Well, what are the vets saying?

Me: The vets don’t really weigh in because his blood work is so good, but his nerve deterioration is so bad that he has no idea that he’s peeing. I’ll take off his diaper, and he’ll drizzle on the floor.

KC: Let me ask you this. With that subject alone, would he be mortified if he had done that at any other time in his life?

Me: That’s a very good point.

KC: There is a lot of pride in Chuck. There always has been. When you look at all the crap on his head that’s he balanced over the years… that’s proud. That’s, “I can do something that not many dogs can.” I just… I know, Heather, this a really tough subject. And it is a hard subject.

Me: Have you had to do it before?

KC: Yes. I‘ve had to do it a couple of times, and I’ve done it for other people. I’m going to tell you a heart-wrenching story about a very young puppy. Wow…

I had a litter of puppies, and a young man who was four years old at the time kept coming over here with his family. One puppy couldn’t see yet, couldn’t hear yet, but he swam across the whelping box in my kitchen, crawled up in this little kid’s lap and went to sleep.

Next time they came over, same thing happened. Still didn’t have eyes, but he went across to that little kid. They were looking to get a puppy out of that litter. Every time somebody else would come in this puppy would stay back, didn’t really want to involve himself. But the minute that young boy would walk in this puppy was like, “There’s my boy! There’s my boy!”

And honestly, Heather, that was the first time I was very clear in my head that sometimes a dog chooses its owner. We may think we are choosing them, but they truly choose us and there’s a reason.

I got ready to send the puppies home. And when I handed the puppy to the little boy and to his father, I said, “Jason, I have never seen anything like this in the 20 years I’ve been involved with dogs and breeding and all the things that I do. I don’t know what lesson this dog has for you but I do know that it’s a big one.” I would love to have shoved both feet down my throat because I had just literally stepped in it.

Me: Oh no…

KC: Two weeks later—the puppy was now nine weeks old—at five o’clock in the morning, my phone starts ringing. It was four-year-old Jason.

“KC, this puppy is acting like it can’t see. It’s acting like it can’t hear. He’s not good.”

I said, “Jason, I’m calling my vet, tell your family to head that way.”

We pulled in shortly after 6 AM. My vet started examining him. No clue what was wrong with him. We didn’t know if it was genetics, we didn’t know if it was poison, we didn’t know what was going on. The puppy kept going downhill, and the vet said to me we need to put this puppy down. This is not fair to the puppy. Now that came from the vet. I said, okay. Jason is four. How do you tell a four-year-old?

So I got down on the floor with Jason, and I started explaining to him that they were going to put the puppy down. They’d named him Ruff. I told him Ruff was going to go to sleep and that he couldn’t go home with him. And I look up and the vet is crying, his dad is crying.

Jason stopped me mid-sentence and said, “It’s okay, KC. God needs another hunting dog. And of all the hunting dogs, he chose my Ruff.”

DO YOU SEE THE HAIR GO UP ON MY ARMS?

I said okay, so we started to put the puppy down. And as soon as the puppy took his last deep breath, Jason goes, “Bye, I will see you again soon.” Jason’s dad and I and the vet are all going “Uhhhh… what just happened?”

Two years later, Jason is now six. I did another breeding. Same mama, same daddy as Ruff. She goes into labor again, here comes this family again. A puppy swam across the whelping box and crawled up into Jason’s lap and went to sleep! Never missing a beat this kid looks at me and says, “See. I told you he was coming back.”

Me: Heart-wrenching is putting it lightly, KC.

KC: And then there’s Snitch, one of my own. He was one of the puppies from my program, could sense a change in blood sugar levels better than any other in his litter. And at nine weeks old—I’d spent thousands trying to save him already—he was at the vet on the verge of death. No one knew what was wrong with him, and I knew I was going to have to let him go. The emotion of it… my blood sugar levels just dropped and dropped and dropped. And as sick as that puppy was, he could smell it and he jumped up and tried to alert me. As sick as he was, and he was still trying to take care of me? That was too much of a responsibility for that poor little guy. He needed his energy to fight. So for me, as hard as that was, I still believe in quality over quantity.

Me: When did you start this program?

KC: I started training diabetic alert dogs about ’06-’07 and it started with him (she points to Radar). The first time he ever alerted I was sitting right where you are. He was just under a year of age. He came and stood in front of me and then backed up and gave me his happy face, patted his front feet on the floor which every other flipping time meant, “I got to go pee.”

So I got up, went to the kitchen, opened the back door and told that dog to go pee. He just stood there and went, “I don’t want to go out.” He had this look on his face like, “You’re an idiot.” So I sat back down. Again, he backed up and patted his front feet. Again, that’s always meant, “I got to go pee, would you let me out?” I got up again, went to the kitchen and opened the door. Again he looked at me like, “You’re an idiot.”

I sat back down and AGAIN he does it and at that point I said, “Okay, buddy you’re going out. I don’t know what you want but you’re trying to tell me something.” I stood up, and right then I felt the low blood sugar. The low blood glucose, that was like 68.

Me: Oh, so at that point you already knew you were diabetic.

KC: Yeah. So I grabbed my meter, at that point it was over on the table right there. And I checked and I saw it was 68. And I did what I always do when I see that number. I say, “Ah, crap.” And I threw it on the couch and went running into the kitchen to get juice because I needed it to bring my sugar levels back up. But this time I’m going, did I just see that? Is that possible? Dig a dog just tell me that something was wrong with me? Nah, that can’t be. Did that happen? Hmm.

Once I figured it out I decided to change the way he was trying to tell me. So I started to toss my meter. Every time Bravo would try to get me to go to the door like that I would just toss my meter. Very quickly he learned to go grab my meter and bring it to me. Eventually I knew that when he brought me my meter, I had a problem.

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Me: You trained him to tell you very specifically that you were in danger.

KC: Oh, yes I did. Now I knew enough to pattern and chain the behaviors together. It took me probably 4 years after that before I figured out what he was truly trying to do with going to the door.

Me: Yeah, why the door?

KC: This guy is ultra sensitive. He does not like me to be mad. It breaks his heart if I get upset, if I raise my voice. He’s just sensitive. What he was trying to do was he knew that every time that smell came that is associated with low sugar levels, I would swear, get angry and go run into the kitchen. In his little pea brain, he was trying to get me to go to the kitchen because where is my door? In the kitchen. If somehow I can get her to go to the door, maybe she will eat something and that smell will go away.

Me: That’s how this all got started.

KC: Yes, absolutely. A dog’s love and devotion is free for the earning. Start with a good quality dog or start with a good quality trainer and put the effort in. This diabetes alert dog stuff is an amazing thing, a gift. But I’m watching companies all across the country charge anywhere from $16k-$25k for a service dog.

HA: Just a general service dog?

KC: Yes! That’s a typical price for a service dog. I mean, if you have reasonably well-behaved children and you’ve got a good sense of logic, why not work with a good trainer and learn how your dog learns? You know a lot of the families I work with don’t want a full-out service dog. They just want an eager, good nose around the house that can help when the kid’s blood sugar is off. That will wake them up in the middle of the night if something is wrong with their kid.

Me: I like that. “Learn how your dog learns.”

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KC: But now here’s the problem. There are a lot of trainers that train a program. “I’m only going to train Cesar Milan’s way.” Or “I’m going to train Sit Means Sit way.” Or “I’m only going to use Karen Prior, I’m only going to use Connie Cleveland.” Dogs are like people. Train the dog, not a program.

Me: But I know you. I know you, KC. You do not charge anywhere near that kind of money for what you do. You don’t even advertise yourself.

KC: I don’t need to. It’s word of mouth. People find me that need to find me. Heather, you can’t buy me.

HA: I found you by word of mouth.

KC: Exactly. Money does not impress me. Material things obviously do not impress me. Do I want to be able to live? Yeah, I do. But I don’t need to have the fastest cars, I don’t need anything flashy. Really, all I need is a roof.

What’s important to me is that if I were to die tomorrow I don’t want anybody ever to say that I was about the money. I don’t charge nearly enough for my training. I don’t charge nearly enough for puppies. I don’t charge nearly enough for anything. I know that. But I love people and I love dogs and I’m a lousy business person. I won’t deny that. And you know what? When I leave, if I can say I helped one kid who’s diabetic? That’s all that really matters to me.

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Many of you have asked about Coco and wondered how she’s handling the loss of her once constant companion. Coco has never known a life without Chuck beside her. I guess the best way to explain what is happening is that Coco and I are the ones who are experiencing the pain of his absence the most, the two of us together.

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Chuck had withdrawn in the last few years, and because of that and the last several months of his incontinence, the girls didn’t have much of a bond with him. They’d see him wander through a room occasionally, but they never showed him the affection that they show for Coco. When I told them about Chuck passing I remained silent in the moments after the words left my mouth because my kids aren’t required to have any specific emotion about him. I didn’t want to manufacture a connection that didn’t exist or make either of them feel guilty for not mirroring the pain in my own face. I have and will continue to let them process it without any interference on my part, offering guidance when and where it’s needed.

That night we all slept in my bed with Coco nestled at my feet. Marlo woke up three times frantically looking for Coco and finally crawled to the end of the bed to press herself into Coco’s body for the rest of the night. Chuck’s passing had revealed to her the dilemma of her attachment: if this could happen to Chuck, it could happen to Coco.

The following night I put Coco to bed in her crate where she would sleep alone for the first time. She hesitated before stepping inside, but it’s what happened the following morning that disclosed her total confusion. Normally I’d let both dogs out of their crates, and before leaving the room Coco would run a circle around Chuck. She’d then race him to the laundry room where I’d feed them breakfast and then bolt out the back door, barking her head off to menace the squirrels. But that morning she ran out of her crate and turned several circles… around… wait? Where is he? Where is he?

She ate her breakfast slowly and then scurried to the back door where she stopped abruptly. Instead of racing outside she stood there alert surveying the entire backyard, looking to the left, to the right, and then back to the left. Then she turned her whole body to look back at me where she might have noticed the early morning light bouncing off the tears pooling at the side of my eyes. I nodded and then closed my eyes forcing the tears down both sides of my face. She lingered for several more moments and only then turned back around to wander slowly out into the grass.

I keep reaching down to pet my purse thinking it’s him. She continues to turn circles every morning around an empty space.

When Coco isn’t busying herself with corralling Marlo she is directly by my side, her head resting on my feet. My commitment to her is as strong as it was to him, perhaps even more so in honor of what he gave to both of us.

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Thank you, CANIDAE®, for making food that nourished my baby boy until his last day in this giant field of grass under the blazing sun. #HealthyPetHappyPet

Heather B. Armstrong

Hi. I’m Heather B. Armstrong, and this used to be called mommy blogging. But then they started calling it Influencer Marketing: hashtag ad, hashtag sponsored, hashtag you know you want me to slap your product on my kid and exploit her for millions and millions of dollars. That’s how this shit works. Now? Well… sit back, buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

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