I just realized it’s been two years since I last blogged about my service dog. I know many keep up with his daily life and activities through his Facebook and Instagram pages. I love that he has his own friends and following. I tell him about his analytics and followers every month, and fortunately it has yet to give him a big head.

When he was a puppy and everything was new, Hubby and I were like first-time parents and took pictures to document everything. Well, that was also partially because we were working with an agency as our own puppy-raisers, and had to log all his training, vet appointments, and that he had three new experiences every week. There was so much to share on social media. Once he passed his public access test and advanced task training, I slowed down on his logs. The last couple years it appears we only took pictures when it occurred to us that we hadn’t posted recently or that we were someplace new.

Gizmo (affectionately known as G, Giz, Black Dog, Fred, or Gizmadoodle–all that might require another post…) is now 6-1/2 years-old. For those new to this blog, G is a black Labrador Retriever cross-trained as both a Medical Alert Dog and a Mobility/Stability Dog to mitigate a number of my chronic illnesses and invisible disabilities. To learn more about service dogs in general, and Gizmo in particular, click  our Service Dog page.

Gizmo still has his puppy moments, as we’ve been told by many that Labs never mature out of that stage, but it’s becoming more apparent that he is definitely an adult. His chin has turned gray, as have a few other spots. He’s a bit slower racing for the door in the mornings, and he tends to nap more in the evenings when my husband gets home. He knows his job well, and when I’m sick he’s a consistent and accurate first-responder. On days when I’m feeling better, he now tends to be a bit pokey about his daily training reviews or learning new things. He still jumps to it whenever there’s an opportunity for treats or to play with other dogs.

We went for his annual vet check in July, and he got a clean bill of health, except for one small problem… Giz has a lipoma, or fatty tumor, the size of a golf ball on the back of his left thigh. According to our vet, this is a benign mass, and Labs have a tendency to have them as well as be at a higher risk for cancer. Dr. Pipes didn’t think this would interfere with his job anytime soon, but we should be aware and keep an eye on it.

So, being me and doing what I do, I started researching the situation. Gizmo has saved my life on countless occasions; I was certainly not going to let him succumb to cancer if there was anything I could do about it. Apparently dogs in our advanced, first-world society have a one in two chance of getting cancer, their obesity epidemic mirrors the human population, and they are not living as long as they once did on farms or in the wild. All these problems seemed to point to diet. I kept researching, talking with trainers, and discovering friends and family members who had changed their dogs’ diets thereby reversing cancer and almost doubling life expectancy.

The diet that did that? Bio-Appropriate Raw Food, affectionately known by its acronym, BARF, which some also refer to as Bones and Raw Food. My husband and I researched, thought, discussed, and talked with other BARF-feeding pet parents before deciding to give it a try. Keep in mind we are vegan in the McClatchy house. We humans follow the whole-food low-fat plant-based, predominately organic diet espoused by the many doctors and scientists affiliated with Forks Over Knives. I haven’t cooked or touched meat since 2003. But, just as I know how much better we feel and how much healthier we are when eating what our bodies need without all the chemicals and processing, I can easily imagine how eating a diet of fresh food, minus the grain, processing and chemicals, would make G feel. We started prepping and feeding the BARF diet almost six weeks ago. For over six years, we have fed Gizmo top quality kibble, so weren’t expecting any sudden or major changes. I hoped for good things, but was not prepared for how excited Gizmo would be for his new meals. He’s a Lab. He eats anything and everything we put in front of him, and many things we would rather him not eat. But folks, I kid you not, Gizmo will dance on his hind legs while we put his raw food in his bowl. During that first month, his energy level went back up, he regained his joie de vivre regarding his job, and the fatty tumor has gotten a bit softer and smaller. The only change was his diet.

Then last week, I had a bad week, Hubby worked too many hours, and we ran out of BARF bags—the meals we had prepped and frozen ahead of time. Gizmo went back on kibble for about ten days. He’s back to being a black furry lump on the floor. Two nights ago we prepped eight days worth of meals for G. I think our experimenting is complete and we are committing to this new diet for my black shadow. It’s a good thing my husband is such a good sport and willing to cut up all the organ meat and bones. Just not sure I can stomach that much hands on.

Before we changed Gizmo’s food, we thought maybe he needed some refresher training. That’s when we learned his trainer had changed her focus, and that her agency is no longer doing the training we need. More research. It’s really hard to find qualified and experienced dog trainers who specialize in the tasks I need Gizmo to do. You just can’t run to the neighborhood pet store and ask them to help you firm up your service dog’s Canine CPR skills for those instances when I stop breathing. Few trainers know how to teach the level of scent work required to identify an oncoming neuro event and properly alert to it.

We finally found an independent trainer with over a decade of experience and his own facility about an hour away. I watched all his training videos and FB Live Q&A’s. I called to talk with him the week after Hurricane Harvey, and found out he had taken the week off to donate his time to help the Gulf coast shelters rescue and relocate their furry storm victims. That earned him big brownie points with me. The following week he returned my call and spent almost an hour on the phone with us, figuring out Gizmo’s status and my needs. He made a number of suggestions of things we can do on our own. We also devised a plan to go and meet with him in the next couple months after we know if his suggestions help or not.

The hardest part of the conversation was when this potential new trainer mentioned that although most large service dogs retire at ten years-old, dogs who have been cross-trained like Gizmo, and who are basically on duty 24/7 because of the medical alert part of the job, often burn out early. He asked what our plans were if G required an early retirement. What a shock! I thought I would have him another four years. Since it will take about a year to raise funds for a new puppy and all the vet and training expenses, plus the two years minimum to train that puppy, assuming we find the perfect puppy and he doesn’t wash out during the training period (up to 60% of all dogs bred by agencies to go into service wash out, and over 80% of dogs rescued from shelters to be trained for service wash out), we are looking at at least three years before another dog can relieve Gizmo of his duties. Of course we will always do what is best for Gizmo—No question. His health and happiness always come first, out of gratitude for all he’s done for me, out of love for our furry family member, and out of a selfish need for him to be on his A-game when handling my life or death medical emergencies.

Hopefully the new diet and ongoing training will help Gizmo finish strong in this career. We are often asked what will become of him upon retirement. We have a couple options. Our far and away number one first choice, is that Gizmo will have a career change and become a therapy dog. My husband is a counselor, and would love to be able to take G to work with him so that he could be a calming and relaxing presence for clients who come in for therapy. We already know Gizmo would love that gig. Should that not work out (due to job/facility requirements or Gizmo’s health) our second option is that Gizmo might be able to go live with our son, who helped with his puppy raising/training, or another friend. The catch there is that Gizmo has always been within leash length of me, even when off duty, and has never been left home alone. He will have to live with someone who can be with him almost 24/7.

In the meantime, all this new information is requiring me to advance our time-line a year or more. In order to raise the required funds, I am seeking more opportunities for public speaking and corporate ADA compliance training, specifically regarding service dogs. I am also writing a book about service dogs to be available for sale early 2018. I did a lot of house/pet-sitting, huge—church- and friend-sponsored—rummage sales, and started public speaking when we were fund-raising for Gizmo. I don’t think I have the health or stamina to start house/pet-sitting again, other than for a few local family members. I know I don’t have the energy and man-power to do such big rummage sales again. Friends have suggested creating a GoFundMe-type account to help with expenses. We’re not convinced that is what we need to do at this time, but are looking into it. We will definitely do a lot of things differently for the next SD in terms of both fund-raising and puppy-raising/training, as my health has declined since 2011 and our sons have grown-up and moved out so I have less help at home. Yet knowing now what a positive impact Gizmo has had on my life, health, and safety, we can’t imagine not having a service dog as part of our little family.

This turned into a longer post than usual, but since so many have asked about Gizmo and our transition plans, it seemed appropriate to put it out here. In case you didn’t know about his social media, please check it out. Here are the links for his Facebook and Instagram. I have not combined the accounts, so although each focus on Gizmo and are written in what I imagine his voice to be, they do not have the same pictures, status, or comments. The FB page also shares interesting and useful information regarding dogs in general and working dogs specifically, in addition to the life and times of Gizmo. The IG account is just about Gizmo. If you find either or both of Gizmo’s platforms interesting, entertaining, or educational, please follow and tell others who might find them of value. In order to find an agent or publisher for the book, it helps if we can show that he already has a loyal fan base.

As always, if you have questions, suggestions, witticisms, or criticisms please leave a comment below. I so enjoy all the new friends I have made through this blog!