From Shelter to Service: A New Purpose for Rescue Dogs – Part 2

Oct 29, 2016 | 2016 Articles, Animal Rescue Adventures

by Erica Horn

“He has what?” I looked down at Gilligan wiggling and squirming on the floor as the vet tech and veterinarian attempted to hold him still to examine his back knees.

“Chronic Cruciate Ligament Disease,” the vet repeated as she accepted slobbery kisses from Gilligan all over her cheeks, “basically he has bad knees. He’s got some osteoarthritis as well because of it. Surgery would improve his quality of life and sooner is better, but it’s not something that has to be done immediately.”

Before I could stop it, a huge sigh escaped my lips, and I willed my brain to stop spinning. Here I was with the first dog of my pilot program that was fully scent trained and ready to be placed, and he was injured. I felt crushed. A bright young soul that was destined to change some type 1 diabetic’s life, and his career was over before it even began.

As I pondered what my next step was going to be, Gilligan broke away from the veterinarian’s hands and waddled over to me, tail wagging furiously. Sitting clumsily down in front of me, he swiped his paw up and out so it tagged my knee, which is the alert I had taught him to indicate a rapidly changing blood glucose number. I glanced down at him with a sad smile on my face as he swiped his paw at me again, this time tail wagging even harder against the floor.


Gilligan pawing to alert

“Hold on one second, I have to check my blood sugar, he’s alerting,” I said as I dug around in my purse with one hand for my glucometer kit. Sure enough, my blood sugar had dropped a significant amount in the last ten minutes. I was going to be dangerously low soon. I opened up a bag of gummy snacks that I carry with me in case of emergencies and stuffed a handful in my mouth while I explained to the vet staff what Gilligan was trained for, as well as what had just happened. Immediately following my explanation came oodles of cooing along with a myriad of dog cookies from all three of us. Gilligan ate it all up with enthusiasm.

About a week before, my partner Alex and I had noticed that Gilligan was having trouble pushing himself up off his bed in the mornings and had been limping after waking up from naps and after long walks or play sessions in the backyard. We knew he was under a year old, and I had known something wasn’t right. The thought of it made me physically sick. I had fallen head-over-heels in love with this adorable bully boy, and he had been kicking butt with his scent training. In the back of my mind, I knew he was going to be good at his job, but now, with this diagnosis I was already assuming his career was over. Right there, sitting in that office, doom spread over me. Because of his breed and his propensity to be a little “spooky-barkish” at new things in his environment, I knew finding him a permanent home with responsible parents was going to be hard enough. But now, adding in that he needed a $5000+ double knee surgery made his chances at a happily ever after even slimmer.

I took several days to consider his options. Gilligan was ready, now, to be placed with a diabetic. He was alerting with great accuracy on my own blood sugar fluctuations at home. He saw it as a game, and for the past several weeks had spent much of his time hanging around me waiting for my diabetes to throw him a blood sugar reading that was alert-worthy. He was so good at his job that he was far surpassing my other dog in the training program, Luca, who much of the time would see him alerting and then give up herself because she saw that he was already taking care of it. I knew that in order to continue on with Luca’s training to prepare her for placement with another diabetic, I needed to place Gilligan. He was beyond ready to move on. After a couple days of mulling it over, I decided that I would do everything in my power to find him a home with a type 1 diabetic who would put his needs first no matter the cost. I owed it to him. He had earned it.


Luca alerting

Gilligan was diagnosed just days before my first article was published, and after that, the calls and emails about adopting both dogs came pouring in. I was surprised, however, that more people were interested in Gilligan than Luca. Gilligan was clearly a Pitty mix, and Luca was a gorgeous hound/shepherd type looking thing; and here more people wanted to learn about adopting Gilligan. But, as I feared, one by one, each applicant dropped out once they heard Gilligan was eventually going to need surgery. Even after offering his placement for the extremely low cost of $185.00 (which was his adoption fee through Animal Compassion Team) people would very quickly pass up Gilligan and ask about Luca. With each passing day as I interviewed each applicant over the phone, I began to lose hope.

After a couple weeks of speaking with countless applicants, I got an email and voicemail from a young man, named Connor, who was a type 1 diabetic and interested in Gilligan. “Here’s another one,” I remember mumbling sarcastically to Alex as I briefly read over the email and adoption application that he had submitted through ACT’s website. “Let’s see how quickly this one backs out,” I remember thinking as I typed up the email to Connor explaining Gilligan’s condition. I didn’t want to waste my time talking with Connor on the phone if he wasn’t willing to consider investing money in Gilligan’s surgery.

I was shocked with the response that I got in return. “I am ready and willing and ready to add Gilligan to be a part of my family,” Connor responded in his email. “…that does not deter me at all, and when it comes to medical costs, the sky is the limit.” The more I talked with Connor, the more I liked him. He sounded dedicated, determined, and at the moment he was the ONLY one even willing to consider Gilligan, injury and all. It sounded too good to be true, and I was having a hard time believing it.

For several days I stewed and prayed about it. So many thoughts spun around in my head. What if this guy is just telling me what I want to hear in order to get a cheap DAD? This was the main question of many. I had been burned in the past with things like this: adoptee’s promising that they will do what’s best for the dog, but later on flake on their promise, and the dog ends up suffering. I had such a hard time believing that someone wanted to adopt a slightly reactive and injured pitty. Yes, he was a fantastic alert dog, but was that enough to make up for his flaws? I came to the realization that I didn’t have another choice. I couldn’t risk Gilligan’s happily ever after just because I had problems trusting people’s good intentions.


Gilligan staring in the bathroom to alert

The first week of October, I scheduled a time for Connor to come meet Gilligan as he lived several hours away, and he was more than willing to work with my schedule. As soon as I met him, I had a good feeling. This young man was polite, respectful, and listened diligently as I went over, in detail, Gilligan’s training and what the plan was going forward with transitioning him into Connor’s home. During those few hours, Gilligan alerted to both Connor and I as both our blood sugar numbers were running a bit high. I felt better and better about the placement, and by the end of the meeting, I had no qualms about watching Connor load up Gilligan into his car and drive off.


Gilligan and Connor

Now, several weeks and a couple phone calls later with Connor, I can say that Gilligan has blown me away! The first night, he woke Connor up with a blood sugar of 66 which is pretty low. As of now, he has only missed a couple of alerts, and has been catching almost all of Connor’s out of range blood sugars which is unheard of with any of the other dogs that I have trained this early in the transition process. Yes, Gilligan is a little rough with some of his behavior manners, but Connor has been fantastic with taking them all in stride and being willing to work with Gilligan on strengthening those manners going into the future. As I think back on how it played out, I know that God had a hand in sending Connor to me as he is the perfect match for Gilligan. I couldn’t have asked for anyone more dedicated, hard-working or patient. Connor is wanting to put in the time and effort to help Gilligan reach his full potential, and to have him be not only a good ambassador for his breed, but also as a Diabetes Alert Dog that came from a central valley shelter as a six-month old stray puppy who had lost his way.

Immediately after Gilligan’s placement, Luca’s alerting accuracy increased, and her training is reaching completion. She is currently in the process of meeting a family that could possibly be a personality match. I will be writing about her continued journey, as well as the other shelter dogs that I am planning on training in the future, on my blog at So far, this pilot program has far surpassed my wildest hopes, and I am so excited for its growth in the future!

You can find Part 1 here:

Gilligan and Connor:

Check out more animal rescue stories in our Pet Perspective section and check back every month for another animal rescue adventure from ARF. Advertise in KRL and 10% of your advertising fees can go to a local animal rescue.

Erica Horn is a service dog trainer in the Bay Area and has earned her degree in Cynology from Bergin University of Canine Studies. In the past several years she has fostered numerous dogs for Animal Compassion Team, was a part of the Behavior Department for Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation and trained Diabetes Alert Dogs for Early Alert Canines; a non-profit organization located in the East Bay dedicated to improving the life of insulin dependent diabetics. Her newest adventure is training diabetic alert dogs privately through her company, T1dogs, and advocating force-free training methods to those who want to better enjoy their relationship with their dog. These days she finds herself splitting her time between her clients, showering affection on her 4 rescue dogs, or helping her boyfriend manage the Doggie Day Inn; a cage-free, in-home boarding & daycare center for dogs. Erica believes that finding a niche for shelter dogs in the service dog world is an achievable goal that will benefit many.

1 Comment

  1. What a wonderful job you are doing with your Diabetes alert dogs. I too am diabetic and have had dogs know when I was having an insulin reaction. I was home alone one day and had fallen on the floor from a very low blood sugar, my Lab came over to me and lay down beside me so that I would not thrash about and harm myself. Fortunately my husband came home from work and able to help me. I wonder if it is an odor we emit when our blood sugar levels rise and fall? I now have a Scottish Terrier that is learning when mama doesn’t feel well. Thank you so much for the wonderful work you are doing.


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