International Assistance Dog Week is the 1 week out of the year where the world stops to salute canine heroes. Assistance dogs improve the quality of life for all kinds of people with everything from diabetes to blindness to chronic pain. A week doesn’t seem like enough to extol the virtues of these selfless helpers but it’s a start. There are several different kinds of assistance dogs that make the world a better place and bring independence and freedom to their owners, but they have a few common characteristics.
Assistance dogs are generally Golden Retrievers, Labradors, or a cross of these 2 breeds. Poodles are sometimes used for those people who require a hypoallergenic dog due to allergies. Sometimes a person’s own dog can be trained as an assistance dog, but they must be young when the training starts (no more than 3 years old), and they have to have a suitable temperament. Dogs must be calm, friendly, and attentive as pups to make good assistance dogs!
Assistance dogs can be trained in over 40 different tasks. In addition to the specialized tasks discussed below, these can include tugging to remove items of clothing (such as jackets and boots), retrieving dropped items, and teaching life skills.
Each assistance dog costs approximately $30,000 to raise and train. Many non-profit organizations work to provide these dogs free of charge to eligible people, but each dog is an investment of time and money. Because a dog has to undergo extensive training, and because finding the right match of human and dog is crucial for success, getting an assistance dog can take many years. Assistance Dogs International is an organization that helps train and place assistance dogs all over the world.
So what different types of dogs are celebrated during International Assistance Dog Week?
Service dogs specifically help people with chronic injuries to 1 or more limbs, or an injury that impairs their ability to function. These dogs can turn on lights, open doors, fetch objects, pull wheelchairs, and even help a person get up if they have fallen. Service dogs help people with multiple sclerosis, blindness, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, spinal cord injuries, and any other debilitating or handicapping physical or neurological condition.
These specialized service dogs are trained to alert their deaf or hard-of-hearing owners to a crying child, smoke, telephones, alarm clocks, and doorbells. And that’s not all: some hearing dogs can be trained to respond to American Sign Language (ASL).
When an owner suffers a seizure, seizure dogs can activate a life alert system, stimulate the owner during a seizure (which can stop it or lessen its duration), retrieve a phone, or find someone to help. Contrary to popular belief, seizure dogs will not necessarily be able to predict a seizure in someone with seizure disorder. Dogs specifically trained to be diabetes alert dogs can actually detect the drop in blood sugar that happens and help to ward off diabetic shock.
Service dogs for autistic children
These dogs begin to work with children with autism when they are very young. These special, patient family members help autistic children cope with stress, communicate, and take an interest in things outside of themselves. The dogs penetrate the interior life of the autistic child and help them join the rest of the world, a crucial step in breaking down the barriers of autism.
Service dogs for PTSD
These dogs offer companionship, comfort, and calm for people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Many soldiers have found great benefit with these dogs after returning home from war, acknowledging the dogs’ role in helping them transition back into their families.
All of these specialized dogs are recognized during International Assistance Dog Week, a good time to reflect on the ways in which all dogs in general but assistance dogs in particular enrich the lives of those suffering with illnesses that may not always be visible, such as chronic pain.
Dogs offer comfort
After the bombing at the Boston Marathon in 2013, comfort dogs were brought in to help ease the pain of those getting ready to participate in the marathon in 2014. Their presence and kindness helped runners and family members of the injured and deceased heal from this trauma.
Dogs improve our mental health
Heeling Allies Assistance Dogs focuses on the mental health benefits of assistance dogs and offers dogs that specialize in helping with mental issues such as agoraphobia, anxiety, and depression. These dogs provide comfort, calm, and structure in social settings and everyday life. In a study by researchers at Miami University and Saint Louis University lead researcher Allen R. McConnell, PhD, of Miami University in Ohio found that:
“…pet owners fared better, both in terms of well-being outcomes and individual differences, than non-owners on several dimensions. Specifically, pet owners had greater self-esteem, were more physically fit, tended to be less lonely, were more conscientious, were more extraverted, tended to be less fearful and tended to be less preoccupied than non-owners.”
Other studies have corroborated these results.
Dogs offer companionship
Dogs are only interested in being in their pack, even if it is a pack of 2. They are always happy when you come home, happy to go for a walk, happy to be with you on the couch. Every day spent with their owners is their best day ever.
Dogs offer patient understanding
This can be invaluable, especially for someone suffering from an “invisible” illness like chronic pain or PTSD. On days when the pain is too much, assistance dogs will patiently wait for you to move slowly through your day. They will help you open doors, pick up shoes, and fetch your keys. The people in your life may get frustrated, but an assistance dog will wait and accept whatever you can do.
Dogs don’t judge
Every day an assistance dog accepts whatever you are capable of doing. If you are depressed and unable to get out of bed, they will lay with you. If your chronic back pain forces you to move at a glacial pace to the food bowl, your dog will wait and happily eat when you are ready. They won’t 2nd guess or question if your pain is real. An assistance dog will accept you as you are, every day. This alone is invaluable.
International Assistance Dog Week is just 1 way to spread awareness of the valuable part assistance dogs play in the loves of so many. How has your dog improved your life?
Image by State Farm via Flickr