Service Dogs to the Rescue
February 22, 2006
By Jean Johnson for Shoulder1
“I feel unbelievably lucky that Sasha picked me and decided I needed help, because I didn’t feel that I did,” said Harry Kiick of Vancouver, Washington of the amber-eyed German Shepherd at his side. “Now I can’t imagine not having her."
Indeed, Kiick is like many people with compromised health or mobility for whom service dogs are trained to assist. But many, given their impaired physical or mental conditions, feel that taking on a service dog would simply add responsibility to their already over-taxed lives. More, they tend to think that they are managing adequately on their own and often do not realize the help and joy a service dog can bring.
| When you meet an assistance or service dog|
Avoid petting or patting the dog because it will distract the dog from its job.
Avoid excessive eye contact or calling the dog’s name. Any attempt to make the dog the center of attention is counterproductive to its efforts to assist its handler.
Avoid feeding service or assistance dogs since they may then learn to be on the lookout for tidbits and hence could get distracted from ensuring their handler’s safety and needs.
Finally, remember to talk to the service dog’s handler and not just to the dog. People with disabilities can appreciate visiting a bit just as much as the next person.
In the case of Sasha, Kiick’s dog, it’s two-way street. Sasha was rescued from an abusive home and trained for her new life by Elisha Burton of Cornelius, Oregon. “I think that’s one thing that makes her good at her job,” Kiick said. “She knows what it’s like to be abused, or in a bad situation.”
Kiick has suffered from epileptic seizures throughout his life, and medication only partially controls the potentially dangerous episodes. Sasha, though, has a sixth sense that allows her to alert Kiick when one is about to happen. It’s not something you can train a dog to do, says Burton, but when one comes along it can be a godsend.
Although researchers say they cannot replicate the ability of dogs to detect forthcoming seizures in controlled experiments, Kiick says than in three and a half years, Sasha has only been wrong once. More, she seems to be able to sense the severity if an exceptionally debilitating seizure is coming on, she will nudge Kiick’s legs or crutches until he notices and sits down.
He’s eternally grateful, he says, that he attended the meeting at which Burton brought Sasha as a demonstration dog in 2002. It was on that day that the German Shepherd went over to Kiick’s side and refused to leave. The pair has lived happily ever after since.
Assistance dogs, or service dogs, is a catchall term for any dog that helps a physically or mentally disabled person. The rubric includes seizure alert response dogs like Sasha, mobility assistance dogs, walker assistance dogs, psychiatric and social assistance dogs, hearing assistance dogs and of course, guide dogs for the blind.
Seizure Alert Response Dogs
Seizure alert response dogs are trained to react to their handler’s seizures by either staying with the person or going to get help. Some dogs are trained to hit a button on a console to automatically dial 911. When someone answers and the animal hears a voice over the speaker, it’s trained to start barking to alert the call center of the emergency.
A very few seizure alert dogs like Sasha seem to be able to predict the onset of seizures.
Walker Assistance Dogs
Man’s best friend has never been so loving as when moving along beside someone who has difficulty walking. Dogs trained to help in this way, walk step by step beside their human partner, providing balance or acting as a counter balance to navigation. Walker assistance dogs also do many of the same things mobility assist dogs are so good at accomplishing.
Mobility Assistance Dogs
Dogs who are trained to help people who have physical limitations can pick things up, and using extensions often made from rope handles, open and close doors as well as turn lights off and on. Trained to retrieve as well, these dogs can get things from high shelves and carry items for their handlers. Mobility assistance dogs can even pull wheelchairs, and generally allow disabled individuals more freedom in their homes.
Psychiatric and Social Service Dogs
Dogs can provide a wide range of assistance to people suffering from any number of psychiatric or social problems. Many agoraphobics, or people afraid of going out in public, for example, find they are able to manage with a dog by their side.
Individuals with autism, as well, benefit from the presence of a trained service dog. Dogs are taught to never ever leave their handler’s side and also can alert their handlers to their distracting repetitive movements, such as hand flapping common among those with autism. These frequent, nonjudgmental reminders provide the person suffering with enough self awareness to stop the movement.
Dogs are also trained for residential settings where children or adults cannot take full responsibility for a working dog, but can benefit from the therapeutic value. Nursing homes, halfway houses, psychotherapy centers and classrooms are all situations in which social service dogs can put clients more at ease.
Dogs help teach children with learning disabilities basic concepts like up, down and under. Additionally, children with histories of sexual or physical abuse often are better able to disclose their past when they have their arms wrapped around the warm fur coat of a dog.
The feeling of unconditional love that humans tend to experience in the presence of dogs can provide enough reassurance for those who have grown up not trusting the world, to confide their deepest shame and fears. The National Education for Assistance Dog Services, Inc. has trained nearly 600 dogs and is one of many across the country involved in this worthy activity.
Guide Dogs for the Blind
Most of us know about guide dogs for the blind – trained Labs, Golden Retrievers, and Shepherds (no Pugs need apply) – who navigate sidewalks, streets, and stairs all the while avoiding obstacles that could injure their handler. The American Disabilities Act allows blind people and their dogs free access to public and private facilities from restaurants to airplanes.
Guide dogs start their rigorous training early in the homes of volunteer puppy raisers, where children seem to help in preparing the animals for their working lives. Once mature and given a sound bill of physical health by a vet, potential guide dogs relocate to training centers for an average of six months. When those that succeed through this rigorous period of instruction and practice are ready, prospective handlers come for a two to three week training camp before taking their new dog home.
At least that’s how the system usually functions. Those that have not been able to get to a training center, though, can take heart in developments since the 1990s. Indeed, the most rapidly grown sector of guide dog training is occurring in small one and two trainer operations. Because these centers are small, they are able to do in home training with handlers, an approach that is enjoying a warm reception.
Hearing or Signal Dogs
Dogs that are trained to help people who are deaf or hard of hearing focus on signaling their human partners to various sounds. These animals alert their owners to things like door bells, phones, smoke alarms, crying babies, the person’s name being called, microwaves and even tea kettles whistling.
Hearing dogs enjoy the same access rights as guide dogs for the blind. These animals work by running back and forth between the sound and their handler until the hearing-impaired person follows the animal to the source of the sound.
More Facts about Service Dogs
It can cost up to $20,000 to train a dog, a cost most organizations cover through donations and volunteer work. For example, the group called Canine Companions for Independence – which started in someone’s home in 1975 has since grown into a non-profit agency with five regional centers – is completely funded through donations and gets no government funding.
People who get service dogs generally pay only very nominal fees of $100 or $200 for their animals. For that price the dogs not only help with whatever liability they have, but give also loyalty.
So, if you or a loved one could use a reliable help functioning around the house and in public, think about a furry, golden-eyed dog. They’ll be there whenever they’re needed as Harry Kiick discovered. And also as Kiick observed, dogs can bring an endearing, enriching companionship that will last their lifetime.
Last updated: 22-Feb-06