Doc dogs: Jessamine County native maintains non-profit dedicated to service dog training transparency
Published 12:32 pm Thursday, July 27, 2023
By Carrie Hudson
The use of service dogs has expanded dramatically over the past few decades.
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According to information from the American Kennel Club, an estimated 500,000 service dogs are working in the United States today with diverse skills such as guiding individuals with severe visual impairments, detecting strokes or sensing low blood sugar for people with diabetes.
Jessamine County native Libby Rockaway has trained diabetic service dogs since she was a teenager. Still, when she learned of the gray area of transparency and regulation in the field of medical service dog training, she said she was inspired to begin a non-profit of her own to “provide transparency in the field of diabetic service dogs.”
Rockaway’s journey toward starting the non-profit started when she was on the cusp of adulthood and about to begin her undergraduate education in the Ivy League.
Opening the door to bring service animals to Penn
Rockaway’s non-profit, M.D. Dogs came to life during her first year at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
It was in high school when Rockaway first began training diabetic service dogs. Still, she was initially unsure if she wanted to continue that in college.
“So, in high school, I trained diabetic or dogs that came with my class. I decided to go to college and try and be like normal and not have a dog with me. And it took me about two months to realize that I was not,” Rockaway said. “At that point, I was like, ‘Okay, I want to try and get permission to bring a diabetic alert dog in-training with me, and have it live on campus and go to classes with me.’”
Given the university had never had a service dog in training on campus before, Rockaway was put in the position to be the first to pave the way for future students.
Rockaway describes this time as a very long period of going “…back and forth with the university and providing evidence of the Pennsylvania laws that do cover service dogs in training. But it was a very long, long conversation and trying to get anybody to basically connect with me and give me the time of day.”
When asked if there are any programs now at the University of Pennsylvania for service dogs in training, Rockaway said, “There actually are now because I opened that door. But I was the first one at Penn.”
Opening doors that were once closed was just the beginning of Rockaway’s vision for her passion, service dog training. She wanted to create a non-profit that made the training process more accessible and transparent.
Lack of regulation in the training of service dogs
Rockway explained how no standards are set by a higher organization that proves or tests the training of service dogs.
“So individual organizations can do testing, but there’s no national or federal requirement. It’s up to each organization…So, anybody can basically just say their dog is a service dog. As long as it’s well-behaved enough, and they say that they have a disability, then you have to let them have access anywhere. Yeah, it’s not a great system,” she said.
The lack of regulation, Rockaway said, can lead to an array of issues, particularly surrounding the legitimacy of a company or the dog’s performance.
“Because of that, a lot of scam organizations pop up because nobody’s ensuring that the $20,000 dogs are well trained and actually doing their job,” Rockaway said. “So, it becomes pretty prevalent that an organization will start to kind of grow and get big, but then they start to kind of decline in the services that they provide because they can’t keep up with all of the dogs.”
Rockaway emphasized the investment necessary to train a diabetic alert dog properly.
“Then pretty soon, they’re selling dogs that aren’t doing their jobs. They’re not trained long enough because it does take one to two years to train them, and that’s a big investment,” she said.
The beginning of M.D. Dogs
Wanting to bring more transparency to the area of diabetic alert dog training while in college, Rockaway set out to create her own non-profit M.D. Dogs.
She said one of the purposes behind her decision was to bring more transparency and to help “educate the public on the training process so that when they go buy a dog that is trained, they understand what questions to ask and how the dogs work. I wanted to show that it is not a black box mystery.”
Having begun training diabetic alert dogs in high school, Rockaway felt she could teach others to do the same through M.D. Dogs.
“Essentially, I was like, ‘Well, if I can do this in high school, people can be doing this on their own, and not having to pay $20,000 for a fully trained one.’ I wanted to teach people how to do it themselves and understand the training,” Rockaway said.
She was able to teach others by writing a book detailing the training process, “Diabetic Alert Dog Training Steps,” and creating a video series. “I wrote a book, put it out there for free when I was in college, as a PDF. Then one summer, I did a video series of a puppy going through the training and put that up there as well for step-by-step instructions,” Rockaway said.
Practices and training
Besides the book and video series, the physical training of the dogs themselves is something Rockaway dedicated a lot of time to and continues to do today.
She stated the training process starts “training the day I bring them home, so at eight weeks or so. I let them settle in and then hit the ground running.”
However, when it was with the litter from her dog, Birdi, the training began within 24 hours.
Rockaway detailed the beginning stages of diabetic alert training on puppies, starting by introducing the scent of low blood sugar.
“So at 24 hours, I created a solution that has a low blood sugar set sample in it and sprayed that on Birdi. So about three times a day, I would spray that on Birdi so that as the puppies nursed, they were smelling this odor of low blood sugar. And it was classically conditioning them to have this super strong positive association with odor from her,” Rockaway said.
While the puppies hadn’t yet had any formal training lessons, Rockaway stated the imprint gave them a “huge jumpstart” into their training.
The application to receive a dog from M.D. Dogs is highly detailed and is the first step of the process.
The application covers basic information including “who they are, their household, what they’re looking for, as well as medical information like when they feel a low blood sugar when they want to be alerted to a low blood sugar, high blood sugar, things like that,” Rockaway said.
From there, Rockaway reviews all the applications and contacts a few individuals she believes may be a good fit for the dog.
During this stage, applicants can ask any questions they may have, and Rockaway can make a better feel of who they are.
But Rockaway said she mainly focuses on “telling them all the reasons they don’t want to dive in, why they are a lot of work, and trying to convince them that this may be this is not the only answer. Because they are huge assets, for sure, but they’re not perfect, and they’re also just like having a toddler with you all the time.”
Then throughout the process, Rockaway designated a path to transparency by creating an online class.
The class touches on the dog’s accuracy, training techniques, and overall what to expect. Altogether, the class lasts about five to six hours.
“My really big goal here, as I mentioned, is transparency. I want to be really transparent about what level of accuracy we can expect and when the dog may not alert. I want them to know that this is not a machine that is just going to respond,” Rockaway said.
At this point, an in-person meeting is scheduled to see how the dog and applicant interact.
“You just have to wait, let them meet and see if they click or not. That’s kind of the final stage- seeing if they look like they can be a team together,” Rockaway said.
This can be one of the trickiest parts of matching a dog with a person. Like how each individual has the qualities that make them unique, so does the dog.
Rockaway said she worked a lot with “lifestyle- I try to match that to the dog I have in training. Each dog is unique. They have their own personalities, their own favorite activities, and things like that.”
After a dog is officially matched and in their new home, free lifelong training is something Rockaway has written in all of her contacts.
“So if they, whether that be through Zoom or phone calls, or if they want to bring the dog back to me. I will keep up without training for the life of the dog. I definitely have contact with them from that perspective,” Rockaway said.
Rockaway explained how the dogs have a required level of accuracy they must meet to graduate from M.D. Dogs.
“I do have a requirement for the first six months after placement. Then the handler has to keep track of every single alert the dog does. And submit that to me, and the dog doesn’t fully graduate until they reach our minimum requirements of alerting accuracy,” she said.
At the moment
After graduating from college in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience, she studied at Queen’s College in Belfast, Northern Ireland. She earned a master’s degree while keeping up the work with her non-profit.
Today, M.D. Dogs is still a large part of Rockaway’s life, however, it is something she now considers more of a “passion project.”
She has taken her love for dogs and dog training to new areas and industries.
Rockaway now serves as the Senior Manager of Customer Experience at CompanionLabs, a tech startup based in California.
According to Rockaway CompanionLabs is working on “building a robot to provide enrichment for dogs and foundational training and skills.”
Rockaway explained how the robot works.
“It has a treat launcher inside that you load up with treats, it has a camera on it. Then it watches what the dog is doing to detect. So, whether the dog is sniffing for a treat, sitting, or lying down. Then it interacts with the dog based on what they’re doing,” Rockaway said. “As the dog progresses, it can start to capture behaviors like sit and down. The device says yes, and launches a treat. Over time the dog starts doing more, and it is just like regular dog training.”
The robot has two options regarding the voice it plays: the owners, which it has to record, or a default voice, Rockaway’s.
While laughing, she clarified this was not something she asked for, “The default voice is my voice. I don’t know how that happened. I did not request it.”
When discussing her work for CompanionLabs, she noted how she has not “gone far from work with dogs, clearly.”
Working and training with dogs has been a considerable aspect of Rockaway’s life for many years and is not something she anticipates to come to an end in the near future.
If you would like to learn more about M.D. Dogs, please check out its website: www.mddogs.org.