Twelve—year—old Stephanie has cerebral palsy. Stephanie’s mom, a single mother, use to have to get up an average of seven times a night to physically help Stephanie or to chase away the boogey man. Not anymore—not since Alette, a service dog provided by Canine Companions for Independence (www.caninecompanions.org) came to live with them. Now Stephanie feels safe and secure and can often sleep through the night. And if she doesn’t, Alette is there to flip on the lights, grab the pillow that fell off the bed, or simply cozy up to Stephanie until she falls back to sleep. We already know how much fun a dog can be, but Rover can also help out with special chores and become a best friend to folks like Stephanie who have special needs.
There are minimum standards for all service dog centers as outlined by Assistance Dogs International, Inc. First, therapy dogs and their handlers are thoroughly screened to ensure their success in therapy programs. A trainer then has to work with each dog for at least 120 hours and no less than six months. Twenty of those hours have to be out in public, among all the commotion of noise, traffic, strange dogs, and other distractions.
Each dog has to learn a set of basic commands: sit, stay, come, down, heel and off—leash recall. Additionally, the dog has to learn some manners: no aggression, no inappropriate barking, no biting, no snapping or growling, no inappropriate jumping on strangers, no begging, and no sniffing of people. And that’s only the beginning. There are ten standards listed for service dogs and additional standards required for response/alert dogs. Each dog then has to learn the specific skills required for its particular kind of service. Hearing dogs learn to react to the doorbell, for example, while guide dogs learn to avoid obstacles.
Assistance dogs fall into the following categories:
- Guide dogs—These dogs are specifically trained to help the blind or someone who is visually impaired. Guide dogs can help them avoid obstacles, like an open manhole cover or a tree branch hanging in their path. They can also signal changes in elevation. The dogs will sit down or stop in their tracks in front of a curb or some kind of edge to let the owner know there’s a step coming. They are also trained to wait at an intersection until it’s safe to cross. These smart pups can even find objects on command, like an exit or a doorknob.
- Hearing dogs—Hearing dogs are trained to help someone who is deaf or hard of hearing. At home, the dog will wake up his owner when the alarm goes off by nudging him. Or they can lead the person to the front door if the doorbell chimes. These dogs can even bring the phone over to their owner if it should ring. If traveling, they’ll warn when a smoke alarm beeps by taking the person to it; or if their owner is asleep, they’ll nudge the person awake. If the cell phone or beeper sounds off, the hearing dog will grab it and bring it to their owner to answer.
- Service dogs—These talented canines are trained to help someone physically disabled, such as a paraplegic. These dogs can pull the wheelchair by a pull strap or help balance the person by leaning against his/her legs. Switching to a rigid handled harness will allow the person to pull himself up or brace against the handle to lift out of the chair. The service dog can bring in the groceries, fetch the mail or newspaper, dump the trash in the garbage can, turn on the lights, pull off socks without biting any toes, or even call 911 on a K—9 rescue phone by pushing the button with his nose. And that’s only a partial list.
- Alert/response dogs—Also known as seizure response or alert dogs, these critters are trained to work with people who have epilepsy, some other kind of seizure disorder, diabetes, or a psychological/psychiatric disability. Not only can they call 911, but these dogs can also fetch an insulin kit, a respiratory assistance device, or medication from a designated spot in the house. The medical response dog can also be trained to lie down on the owner’s chest to produce a cough so she can breathe easier when the suction machine or caregiver isn’t near by.
- Therapeutic companion dog—The companionship this type of dog provides can have a therapeutic benefit on the life of anyone with a temporary or less limiting disability as well as the elderly or a special needs child. Often these dogs aren’t used out in public and their skill level is fairly limited. They’re taught the basic obedience skills (sit, stay, come, down, heel) and proper behavior (no aggression, nuisance barking, biting, or begging) and more. Therapy dogs and their handlers typically are thoroughly trained and screened to ensure their success in therapy programs. These dogs are well—behaved pets that can lift the spirits of someone who’s suddenly alone, such as an elderly woman who recently lost her husband of fifty years. While some organizations don’t technically consider these dogs service animals, there is no doubt that they can provide emotional support. For more information on therapy dog programs, visit the Delta Society website at www.deltasociety.org.
There are many more things these dogs can do than those listed above. For a complete list of trainable tasks, visit the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners website (www.ismi.net/iaadp).
Even mutts can be heroes
Assistance dogs don’t have to be pure bred or of a specific breed or size. In fact, half of the dogs trained for service is rescued from dog pounds and shelters. The other half is adopted from private families, according to ADAI. The only special consideration is for those service dogs that may have to do some heavy pulling or bracing to help their owners. These dogs should come from breeds with sturdier frames and larger structures.
In some cases, assistance animals don’t even need to be dogs! Monkeys have been trained to assist the physically disabled, and miniature ponies have been trained to guide the visually impaired. Trainers are continually exploring the ways that animals can help people with needs.
How to find a canine friend
There are many training programs and facilities throughout the United States that cater to individuals who need canine help. If you or someone you know is in need of an assistance dog, talk with your local veterinarian for recommendations for your specific needs, or contact one of the organizations above.
Although the law doesn’t require a special public ID for assistance dogs, you can keep an eye out for them in public. They’ll usually be wearing either a visible tag, vest, coat, harness, or backpack. If you come across someone with an assistance dog, remember—don’t pet or distract the pooch. He’s working.