Service dogs, assistance dogs, therapy dogs: whatever you call them, dogs are doing amazing things to help people. Traditionally thought of as aides for the blind, service dogs are now being used for so many more medical issues for adults and children. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service dogs as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.”
Assistance dogs can be trained to provide numerous services for disabled people. Their abilities range from guiding people who are blind, aiding deaf individuals, alerting someone to take medications, providing calm and comfort for PTSD and panic attack sufferers, to protecting someone having a seizure or even pulling a wheelchair.
The stories of the incredible things service dogs have done are numerous and heart-warming. The website of 4 Paws for Ability, a nonprofit organization dedicated to pairing services animals with children and veterans with disabilities, is full of inspiring stories of perfectly matched animals and humans.
One such story is Maddie and Viva. Maddie is a young girl who suffers from seizures and balance and mobility issues that affected her daily life and interfered with her schooling. Viva, a golden retriever trained specifically for Maddie’s needs, changed her life. Viva helps Maddie with tasks she isn’t able to perform alone by becoming a counterweight preventing her from falling and enabling her to manage stairs. In just a few months, Viva was able to alert staff at Maddie’s school four times before a seizure occurred, helping staff administer seizure medication and preventing Maddie from having a seizure. Maddie has thrived since Viva has come into her life.
Any breed CAN become a service dog, but there are some breeds who are born for it. Golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers and specifically suited because they are extremely trainable and have personalities fitting service. German sheperds and border colliers are also commonly trained to be assistance dogs. Larger dogs are often more suited as their size lends them to mobility and physical service needs. But any size dog can be trained for medical alerts and emotional support.
Service dogs-in-training start by learning the 3 basic things that all puppies should learn: good house manners, socialization and basic commands. But their training goes much further. Some trainers teach their dogs 30 commands as puppies, such as Watch Me, Sit, Come, Stay, Wait, Off, Quiet, Settle, Heel, Let’s Go, Follow, Go To, Leave It, and so many more.
The standard time for training a service dog is 120 hours over at least 6 months. Up to 30 of those hours will be spent in public to teach them to deal with distractions. In the US, training is broken down into three stages: Heeling, Proofing and Tasking. Heeling is more than just “sit” or “come”. It is the difficult task of teaching the dog to stay with their human regardless of how that human moves. Proofing takes a tremendous amount of time and teaches the dog to not be distracted but constantly in tune with their human. The third stage is tasking which teaches the animal the specific tasks that their human needs performed, like guidance or protection.
Keep in mind that therapy dogs are not pets, but highly trained service animals. They are always working, assisting their humans through their daily lives. When you come in contact with a service dog, always ask before petting.
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