Assistance Dogs: Offering a New Sense of Freedom
February 24, 2011
Imagine not being able to open a door,
not being able to pick up items that fall to the ground, or not
hearing an intruder enter your home. Many individuals with
disabilities live with those concerns on a daily basis.
Fortunately, assistance dogs have been incorporated into their
lives so they can receive help in performing those daily tasks.
An assistance dog is broken down into
three sub-categories: guide dogs to assist vision-impaired
individuals, hearing dogs to assist with intruders or other sounds,
and service dogs to aid with all of the other duties that a guide
or hearing dog does not cover. Assistance dogs have been around
since 1929 when the Seeing Eye Guide Dog association was
The American with Disabilities Act
(ADA) defines service animals as "animals that are individually
trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities such as
guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling
wheelchairs, alerting and protecting a person who is having a
seizure, or performing other special tasks. Service animals are
working animals, not pets."
"Service dogs provide an opening for
people with disabilities to be accepted," explains Dr. Alice
Blue-McLendon, Clinical Assistant Professor at the Texas A&M
College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) and
the advisor for one of the many student run organizations called
the Texas A&M Aggie Guide-Dogs and Services-Dogs (AGS).
"Service dogs not only help individuals with disabilities complete
daily tasks, but they give the individuals a new sense of freedom
There are about 15,000 individuals who
use assistance dogs in the United States and there are many who are
on the waiting list to receive one. An assistance dog can help a
visually impaired individual get around, and they can also help
individuals lacking the use of fine motor skills by opening and
closing doors for them and picking up things that they drop.
"Some service dogs are even trained to
pick up credit cards," notes Blue-McLendon. "Each dog is trained to
do specific tasks."
There are several national
organizations who train and place assistance dogs with their
owners. Each organization has different methods that they use to
train dogs. Some organizations get their dogs from shelters and
help find a second life and purpose for the dog. Some organizations
use donated dogs to train with. Other organizations raise their own
dogs to train with.
Prior to training,
each dog is tested to ensure that it has the proper temperament and
a high intelligence to be able to handle the training. Training
assistance dogs involves two phases. Phase One includes puppies
from 8 weeks to 16 weeks old and is about 18 months long. It
consists of obedience training and socializing. After assistance
dogs successfully complete Phase One, they are put into a more
specific training regimen that usually takes from 6 months to a
"After Phase One, there is a high
percentage of dogs who have a 'career change,'" notes
Blue-McLendon. "Some dogs do not perform as expected during the
Phase One training and they are 'career changed,' for example they
become therapy dogs where they visit places like nursing homes or
they become pets. It takes a dog with a special personality to be
placed as an assistance dog."
At the end of a successful training, a
dog is matched with its new partner/owner. According to the ADA,
the dog's function is to assist the individual and is not a
"If you see an assistance dog in its
jacket, always ask the owner if you can pet the dog," notes
Blue-McLendon. "An assistance dog may be working and its mindset
may be thrown off if someone pets it without proper notification
from its owner."
According to the ADA, people with
disabilities cannot be asked to remove their service dogs from the
premises, unless the animal is out of control and the owner does
not take effective action to control it or the animal poses a
direct threat to the health or safety of others. Unless those two
instances occur a service dog and a dog in training can go anywhere
its owner goes.
Dependent on their specific duty, assistance dogs come in all
shapes and sizes. According to Blue-McLendon, the most common
breeds who complete the training programs are: Labrador,
Labradoodle, German Sheppard, and Golden Retriever.
"AGS have been training assistance dogs through Phase one since
1997," says Blue-McLendon. "Our puppy raisers or trainers are
students all across the university with different majors.
Volunteers in other service dog organizations also range across the
board. However, they all have one common goal and that is to help
train an animal so that animal can dramatically improve an
individual's life forever."
The success of the assistance dog program has initiated a new
sense of power and freedom for its constituents. The future is
hopeful and looks bright as people become more aware of the
positive effects that assistance dogs have on the individuals
physically and emotionally.
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