21 September 2009

Assistance Dogs

This is an article I wrote in the early 1990's, most information still applies so you may consider it "evergreen" in that regard.


Disability should not mean inability nor immobility!

To physically challenged people, living independently represents a dream of personal control and choices. Rather than focusing on limitations and dependency, their emphasis should be on quality of life and involvement to stress independence and activities based on self help.

One important way for the mobility challenged to gain control is through the use of assistance dogs. This includes the well recognized leader dogs for the blind; dogs who assist the hearing impaired; and dogs serving the physically challenged. These companions are literally physical extensions of their human partner. A way to achieve the "impossible dream."

Guide dogs for the blind are the eyes of their master. They work as a team and learn to overcome daily obstacles so the world opens up for the blind person.

Hearing dogs grant their owners new confidence and freedom. In this partnership, the dog uses its body to "signal" a variety of daily sounds inside and outside the home. Hearing dogs are trained to respond to everything including the morning alarm clock, a baby's cry, a telephone call, an intruder, a life-saving fire alarm, and other critical sounds. Hearing dogs signal all the sounds that most of take for granted. Dogs are trained to lead the person to the sound in all cases except the smoke detector. With the smoke alarm, the dog takes the person to the nearest exit. Training these dogs takes about four months.

The latest of the specialty trained assistance dogs is the service dog. These animals are trained to help physically challenged people. Service dogs become the arms and legs of their new companions. They retrieve and carry objects, pick them up and put them away, turn lights on and off, and assist their owner's to rise from a fall. Service dogs pull wheelchairs over all terrains, including difficult spots and curbs. Training time varies depending on the skills needed, but usually lasts between 6 - 12 months depending on the owner's needs.

Service dogs are trained to assist people in claiming their independence. It is their right to have a high quality of life regardless of physical or mental limitations. They should be free from barriers -- whether physical or judgmental. Service dogs can help develop that freedom.

Perhaps you have reached for something but could not reach it? The trained dog can retrieve it for you. Consider sitting in a wheelchair in front of, but below and just out of reach of an elevator button. The service dog can push that button for you. At the grocery store, the service dog can select and carry your purchases to the check out. Once at the check out the dog will place your goods on the counter and exchange money with the teller. In these and other situations, the dogs help people acquire mobility and independence.

Assistance dogs are not "pets" and not all dogs qualify as assistance dogs. Prospective assistance dogs are intelligent, quick, well socialized, willing to please and highly responsive. Dogs that are trained for service work are confident and controlled, but willing to submit. Bold, rammy dogs that are always charging to the front are not acceptable. The dogs should be teachable and not aggressive or domineering. They should be receptive to training and not fight the process every step of the way. Good health and ease of care, such as grooming, are also important.

Assistance dogs are put through rigorous screening, training and evaluation. Many dogs fail to qualify and others are dropped from the program at various points in the training process. Once the dogs are training, they are matched with their new partners and training the "team" begins. At the beginning of the relationship, the new owner is the only channel for all of the dog's pleasures and indeed, for everything in the dog's life. This may seem over controlling, but it protects both the dogs and the people. Most dogs are paid for through fundraising efforts and are placed free of charge to the recipients.

Unlike regular "pet-to-owner" relationships, the role of the assistance dog and the owner are reversed. This means that the dog becomes the main caregiver. The animal is responsible for the individual's safety and well-being. This unique relationship requires special formalities. These dogs are identified by a distinctive pack, scarf, collar or ID card or collar tag. When approaching an individual with a service dog, remember to always ask before you touch! Do not pet, feed or fuss over any animal that is working. A distraction could mean danger for the dog and his partner.

Dogs are also being integrated to assist those with disabilities in other ways. Therapists use them as "go betweens" to assist socially or mentally disturbed people who may be convalescing, elderly, autistic or mentally challenged. The dogs provide immediate outlets for affection and companionship while offering unconditional love.

Today, the bond between animals and humanity is more profound than ever imagined. This link is particularly true for the mobility challenged and their service dogs. The service animals enrich their lives and bring independence. Working dogs can restore lives as well as save them. This is powerful "medicine" for the soul as well as the body.

In the United States, approximately thirty five million people could be helped by the use of these dogs.

Dogs provide independence to people with a broad range of disabilities such as:
  • Arteriosclerosis

  • Arthritis

  • Autism

  • Bi-Lateral Acoustics Neurothrombosis

  • Blood Disorders

  • Cerebral Palsy

  • Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

  • Developmental Disabilities

  • Rheumatoid Arthritis

  • Down's Syndrome

  • Epilepsy

  • Hearing Impairment

  • Kidney Disorders

  • Lou Gehrig's Disease

  • Lung Disorders

  • Lupus

  • Meniere's Syndrome

  • Muscular Dystrophy

  • Polio

  • Deafness

  • Spina Bifida

  • Spinal Cord Injuries

  • Stroke Victims

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