Since 2009, the first week of August has been designated International Assistance Dog Week. Marcie Davis, a paraplegic for over 35 years and the author of "Working Like Dogs: The Service Dog Guidebook," created IADW to "recognize of all the devoted, hardworking assistance dogs helping individuals mitigate their disability-related limitations."
There aren't just a lot of assistance dogs; there are a lot of types of assistance dogs. People live with all sorts of disabilities, and trained canines are able to help them deal with more challenges than you might guess. In honor of International Assistance Dog Week, we're spotlighting 10 different ways assistance dogs help the people in their care.
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Guide dogs are highly trained to deal with "pedestrian obstacles" while guiding their owners through public spaces. Guide dogs stop for overhead obstacles like tree branches, and changes in elevation like curbs or stairs. They also learn "intelligent disobedience," meaning they won't obey unsafe commands, like stepping into the street with oncoming traffic. However, dogs cannot read traffic signals or determine routes to reach destinations. That is the responsibility of their human partner, from whom guide dogs take their cues and commands. It is up to owners to plan and know the route so their dog can do its job — which is to guide them, not lead them. Canines must be smart, sturdy and even-tempered to act as guide dogs. Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds are common guide dogs, but Labrador Retrievers are favored for guide dog programs around the world. (Source)
While they are not as well known as guide dogs for the blind, hearing dogs are used to assist the deaf. When indoors, they make physical contact and lead their owner to the source of a sound. Their job is much harder in public spaces; hearing dogs are not often trained to alert to specific sounds, like horns or sirens. They offer their owner an increased awareness of their surroundings. Hearing dogs can react to a noise, and their owner sees when they turn their head towards that sound. There are seven main sounds that hearing dogs are trained to respond to: oven timer, alarm clock, telephone, fire and smoke alarms, doorbell/door knock and the call of their name. Hearing dogs are typically Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Cocker Spaniels, Miniature Poodles or Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, but adopted mixed breeds are often used as well. Medium-sized breeds that are energetic, friendly and people-oriented are preferred. They also need to be ready to work when a sound goes off. (Source)
DIABETES ALERT DOGS
Diabetes alert dogs are trained to recognize the symptoms of dropping or low blood sugar. They are mainly used with people who have Type 1 diabetes, who cannot feel their blood sugar dropping until it is dangerously low. Trained dogs can alert their owners when that happens and even bring objects to them, like a bottle of orange juice or medicine. They can detect low blood sugar in their owner's breath and dial 911 on a K-9 alert phone, if necessary. Because sense of smell is such an important aspect of being a diabetes alert dog, canines with longer and wider noses are best suited. Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Shetland Sheepdogs, Poodles, Corgis and Australian Shepherds are all preferred breeds for scent training. (Source)
Therapy dogs are often mislabeled as service dogs, but they are not protected under the ADA’s definition. A key difference between the two is that therapy dogs can be pets trained to act as therapy dogs. Service dogs are not ever considered pets. However, canines have been used for years to aid and comfort those in hospitals, specifically patients with mental health issues. They also provide emotional support and comfort to many ill patients, the elderly in assisted living facilities and even children in schools. Any size or type of dog breed can act in this capacity, but temperament is key. Dogs must be patient, friendly and comfortable with strangers. Since they are in surroundings with strange sounds and smells, the canines must be able to stay calm and relaxed while interacting with many unfamiliar faces. They must pass testing with a certified Therapy Dog Instructor (TDI) before registering with a legitimate therapy dog organization. (Source)
PSYCHIATRIC SERVICE DOGS
Although they perform similar duties, psychiatric service dogs differ from therapy dogs. Psychiatric service dogs assist those who suffer from panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression or autism. They are trained to retrieve medication, serve as a buffer in public spaces by creating a physical boundary, and bring their owners back to the “here and now” when they are panicking or in an emotional state. These canines vigorously lick the face or persistently nudge their owner until they receive the proper response, thus snapping the person into the moment. (Source)
SEIZURE ALERT DOGS
Seizure assistance dogs can be categorized as either seizure alert dogs or seizure response dogs (which will be addressed in another slide). A seizure alert dog warns its owner of an impending seizure either moments or hours before it occurs. It largely remains a mystery as to how dogs are able to detect an oncoming seizure, but many scientists believe that canines can smell it. Subtle changes in body odor, as well as changes in body language, are signals these dogs look for. A canine's ability to detect seizures is a naturally occurring capability and therefore cannot be taught. The task then becomes figuring out how a dog might signal an impending seizure. They may lick their owner’s hands, pace or gather all of their toys and dump them in front of their owner. Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, Border Collie mixes and Samoyed mixes are some of the breeds that have been able to detect and alert their owners of seizures. (Source)
MILITARY SERVICE DOGS
Military service dogs offer veterans a sense of independence and a source of comfort after they have returned home. They are not to be confused with military working dogs, which are used during deployments to detect explosives, go on patrol and help with search and rescue missions. Used to counteract the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), mobility disabilities or loss of limb, and other combat-related trauma, military service dogs have been shown to enhance the lives of their owners. For example, handlers of military service dogs report that veterans speak more openly and for longer periods of time with mental health professionals when the dogs are present. Training for this type of service dog can take up to two years, depending on the specific tasks required of the animal. German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers are all popular choices, but any breed can be used so long as the dog meets the standards of its training. (Source)
SEIZURE RESPONSE DOGS
These canines are trained to assist their owners either during or after a seizure. They can find someone to help or provide deep pressure stimulation by lying on their owner during a seizure. Seizure response dogs can also retrieve a phone to call 911 or bring medication to their owner. They act as a brace to help a person up if they fall down and serve as a source of comfort. The important thing to note is that seizure response dogs cannot be trained to predict and alert people to oncoming seizures. As previously explained, that is a skill that select dogs are born with, though some dogs may develop it over time spent with their owner. However, this behavior is not guaranteed, and it may not be consistent. Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers and Poodles are primarily used as seizure response dogs. They should be people-oriented and very responsive to human emotions, and have a friendly demeanor. (Source)
MOBILITY ASSISTANCE DOGS
Mobility assistance dogs are an important asset to those who have limited mobility, especially at work or in school since the assistance decreases one’s reliance on other people. Dogs are trained to retrieve items and carry them to their owner. They can turn light switches on and off, open drawers and cabinets, and even help their owner to dress. Canines also act as "walker dogs" to assist those who need a counterbalance while walking. They brace for stairs or ramps, and can help to reposition a person if he or she falls. Large breeds like Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, Border Collies and Huskies are best to serve as mobility assistance dogs. Because their tasks are so physical, the canines need to be able to pull open doors and carry groceries. (Source)
ALLERGY ALERT DOGS
Since they already have a keen sense of smell, dogs can be trained to detect specific scents. People suffering from severe, life-threatening allergies have the added security of a dog to alert them to their specific allergy. In addition to the increasingly common peanut allergy, canines are even being trained to detect gluten. They must be intelligent, focused and willing to please. Allergy-friendly breeds like Australian Labradoodles, German Shorthair Retrievers or Portuguese Water dogs are popular choices to act as allergy alert dogs. Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers are also preferred breeds. (Source)
Next: Dogs at Work!
To learn more about assistance dogs, visit these websites:
Assistance Dogs International
ADI is a coalition of not for profit organizations that train and place assistance dogs.
International Association of Assistance Dog Partners
IAADP is a non-profit, cross-disability organization representing people partnered with guide, hearing and service dogs.
Working Like Dogs
WLD is a resource for people with working and service dogs, or who would just like to learn more about them.