Missie to the rescue: Service dog at Army headquarters training to sniff out health issues
By Lynn Capuano, Army Public Affairs
Ottawa, Ontario — A dog whose ancestors protected Roman soldiers on the battlefield now keeps watch over a retired Canadian Army (CA) soldier.
Stephen Holton, Deputy Information Systems Security Officer for the CA, began bringing Missie, his seven-month-old service dog, with him to work at the Canadian Army Headquarters in Ottawa in May 2019.
Missie, a black-and-white Italian Mastiff and Great Dane cross, wears the Army Headquarters patch on her service vest. She is a sixth-generation service dog bred by a long-time friend of Mr. Holton, Kim Callaghan of Edmonton, Alberta, who breeds the animals for Veterans, first responders, and others.
Missie’s full name is Missile because of her rapid entrance into the world in December 2018. She was the first-born of a litter of seven puppies, all of whom are now in training to be service dogs.
Mr. Holton’s health issues, which are not a result of his service, are largely under control. He suffers from several complications of his diabetes, coupled with a non-epileptic seizure disorder caused by a stroke. He has been seizure-free for two years, and Missie’s focus is primarily on the diabetes aspect of support.
Mr. Holton served 12 years with the CA and has been a civilian for about 22 years. He started out in the Army Reserve infantry with the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment in Belleville, Ontario and later became an Infantry Officer. After six years, he transferred to the Regular Force in the Communications and Engineering Branch and then served as a captain in the Signal Corps. He deployed on a number of operations in Canada during his military career.
He obtained Missie through Paws for Veterans, an organization based out of the Royal Canadian Legion’s Saskatchewan Command in Regina. They have supported 25 service dog teams since 2014, and periodically follow up to ensure ongoing training is taking place.
Some service dogs are trained by a third party and are then provided to their new owner, but this can cost as much as $25,000 per dog.
Mr. Holton is training Missie himself, with the help of professional dog trainer Brittany Toth of Lethbridge, Alberta, to recognize triggers, including scents, which will alert the dog that his blood sugar levels have dropped too far or that he is about to have a seizure.
Taking on the training of Missie himself means lower cost, and also a more closely-knit bond with her.
Missie’s size and heritage
Although Missie is already as big as a Labrador Retriever, she still has a lot of growing to do. This giant puppy is one quarter Great Dane and three-quarters Italian Mastiff, with the potential to reach 52 to 58 kilograms (115 to130 pounds) and stand 86 centimetres (34 inches) high when fully grown.
Why choose such a big dog? Mr. Holton explained, “If I ever got disoriented or fell down, I need a big enough dog that if I’m in danger, she could drag me to safety.”
Known for their friendly yet protective nature, mastiffs are an ancient breed, according to Ms. Callaghan. Mastiffs still used as family companions and guard dogs, although their more distant origins included protecting Roman soldiers in battle.
Great Danes, also an ancient breed, are loyal and gentle with their people, in spite of their heritage as fast and powerful boar-hunting dogs. In a time before firearms, they were able to hold the boar down for their masters to kill.
Calm, quiet and not a ‘slobber donkey’
Missie is not a high-energy dog, and she is particularly calm when indoors, content to lie at her master’s feet or tucked under his desk. She rarely barks except to warn of intruders or other unusual situations.
“Another Army member in Trenton has a dog, Missie’s brother. One of the only times I’ve heard Missie bark was when she heard her brother barking on a video,” noted Mr. Holton.
Another of the positive aspects of this cross breeding is that the dogs drool less than either the Mastiff or the Great Dane. Having previously owned a French Mastiff, which he adored, Mr. Holton has first-hand experience with this trait. He said he used to call her “the slobber donkey.”
Success with online and hands-on training
Ms. Callaghan noted that the intent is to use modern training techniques to further develop the innate abilities of the dogs she raises.
Ms. Toth, who is an independent dog trainer, began assisting with service dog training about five years ago. Now she not only trains, but helps others train and she is creating training materials and programs, some of which are available to Mr. Holton and other service dog teams via an online app.
She is contracted by Paws for Veterans to support Missie’s training.
“To date I have 12 dogs out there working, many of which do not need my help any more who I track from a distance and follow up with yearly. Some require additional help and I follow up with them weekly and do a visual check-in every three months.”
“Having someone to talk them through it and give suggestions to help mitigate behaviour helps reduce problems; sometimes all that is needed is a different technique. They know that they have someone to talk to and I can lay it all out for them. They have a program that they have to follow that is tailored to them and their dog, taking in mind the stages of the dog and what they are capable of doing,” said Ms. Toth.
Training to take up to three years
Missie is in her basic obedience and socialization phase, which will last about three months. Some of this training is geared to desensitize her to new situations such as loud traffic, buses, busy sidewalks, rooms full of people and elevator rides.
Members of the public should not speak to, pet or otherwise distract a service dog while it’s on duty without asking the handler first, as she must not try to seek out attention while working. They must learn to only respond to commands from their handlers.
Mr. Holton expects Missie will be trained as a basic service dog in a year’s time, but her specialty training for diabetes and seizure detection will take two to three years.
“For the diabetes training, what I have to do is to give her samples of swabs from my mouth with various sugar levels so she will react the way I want her to depending on if I’m high or low. As you can imagine it will take quite a bit of effort to get her to smell these samples and then attribute them to me,” explained Mr. Holton.
“I have some very deep lows that come on hard and fast and unexpectedly,” he added. “The most dangerous ones can be in the middle of the night. I go from a deep sleep to suddenly feeling as if I have just run a marathon: it is terrifying and disorienting. I can’t even talk when I wake up like that and I have to desperately try and feed myself while shaking and having tunnel vision. Missie will wake me up before that happens.”
Advice to those needing a service dog
Mr. Holton tried two or three other times to find a service dog without success.
“The first step to getting a service dog is to be sanctioned by a medical professional, and that could be anyone from a psychologist to a general practitioner to an endocrinologist, like in my case,” he said.
“You also would have to find someone who does train dogs to assess whether or not you have the capacity to do the training with them or not, and for care and management. If you’ve never cared for a dog before, it can come as a shock. And to train them as a service dog, it’s a lot more effort.”
“The hardest part is actually finding an organization that provides service dogs. A lot of these organizations depend on word of mouth,” he said.
Ms. Toth agreed, and noted that finding a dog that fits a particular household and lifestyle is important, and training for specific needs can be tricky.
“Picking a breed because you like it or it looks pretty doesn’t work.”
“Talk to others with service dogs,” she advised. “They can send you in the right direction and provide advice and hints about where to go and who to talk to.”
Meanwhile, Missie is learning is to accompany Mr. Holton to the gym and restaurants.
“She settles down within 15 to 20 minutes wherever I take her and then it’s just a matter of putting up with her snoring,” he said.
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