Dogs With Jobs: Assistance Dogs

Assistance dogs are those animals who give differently-abled people the chance to be more independent in daily living. The three main classes of assistance dogs are guide dogs for the visually impaired, hearing dogs for the hearing impaired, and service dogs for those with physical or mental / cognitive limitations.
Guide dog waiting for a command
Assistance dogs can help people with mobility limitations.

Most assistance dogs are donated to a regional office of a training organization like Guide Dogs of America, Dogs for the Deaf, Inc., or Freedom Service Dogs. In some cases, these organizations rescue dogs from euthanasia at local shelters.

Guide dogs for the blind are most often large purebred dogs such as Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and German Shepherds. Hearing assistance dogs are often small mixed-breed canines rescued from shelters. Service dogs for the physically or mentally challenged may be small or large, purebred or mixed breeds, depending on the needs of the client.

In cooperation with local foster families, the regional offices of training organizations get started on socializing and training the puppies in basic manners and obedience. Once the dogs are old enough to begin formal training, they are brought back into the regional office and given enough training to meet the minimum standards required for all assistance dogs.

Guide dog waiting for a command
Guide dogs require extensive training to serve their owners.

Once the dog achieves at least the minimum standards of proficiency, the dog is matched to a person and begins training for the specific needs of that person. For example, a person who struggles with upper body strength might need a dog who can open doors and cupboards. A person who has seizures might need an assistance dog who can sense an oncoming seizure and communicate to the person that he or she should sit down before the seizure hits.

Training Standards

According to Assistance Dogs International, all assistance dogs must meet the following minimum standards:

  • Respond to commands from the client 90% of the time on the first ask.
  • Respond to voice and / or hand signals for basic obedience skills.
  • Meet all behavior standards in public and the home environment.
  • Meet the ADI standards and ethics, and be spayed or neutered and up-to-date on shots before placement with a client.

Depending on the purpose for which the dog will be used, there are also specific training standards to be met. For example, guide dogs must be able to negotiate obstacles, overhangs, barriers, street crossings, and public transportation.

Hearing Assistance Dog

Hearing dog
Hearing assistance dogs can be trained to alert someone when a doorbell or telephone rings.

Hearing assistance dogs can be trained to alert someone when a doorbell or telephone rings.

Hearing assistance dogs must demonstrate sound awareness skills by being able to alert the client to at least three different sounds and leading the client to the source of the sound. For example, when the doorbell rings, the dog might paw at the person’s leg, then walk to the door, while a crying baby might signal the dog to nudge the person’s hand and walk to the child’s cradle.

Service dogs may perform a wide variety of tasks to help their handlers. They might retrieve dropped objects, pull a wheelchair, turn light switches on and off, provide a counterbalance for those who have mobility issues, or alert the person when his or her blood sugar drops. They can also be very calming to a person who has autism or other mental challenges. Each dog must be able to perform at least three tasks related to their partner’s disability.

Clients, or those who will use an assistance dog, also have some responsibilities, including knowing acceptable training methods for dogs and understanding canine care and health. They must also be able to continue their dog’s training and use problem-solving abilities to add new skills to their dog’s repertoire.

Assistance dogs in public settings

Although assistance dogs can be invaluable in a person’s home, they can also allow the person to experience greater freedom and independence in public. When wearing a vest identifying the animal as a service dog, these animals are guaranteed access to nearly anyplace people can go including public transportation, hotels, restaurants, and the workplace.

In order to maintain this ability, it is important that the dogs meet certain standards such as being clean, stink-free, and well-groomed. The dogs must learn where and when it is appropriate to relieve themselves, and must not be overly-annoying or disruptive to members of the public. Assistance dogs cannot be table-surfers and may not show any type of aggression toward people or other animals.

Guide dog waiting for a command
When guide dogs are wearing their identifying vests or harnesses, they are working and shouldn’t be interrupted without permission from the owner.

If you see an assistance dog in public, you might notice he doesn’t stray far from his or her person. In fact, they are trained to stay within two feet of the handler at all times unless a helper task requires a further distance. Most of the time, an assistance dog can be found lying at his person’s feet or under the chair or desk when the person isn’t moving about.

When approaching an assistance dog, it’s very tempting to speak to the dog or interact with him in some way. Not a good idea. When these dogs are wearing their identifying vests or harnesses, they are working and shouldn’t be interrupted without permission from the person.

It’s also just plain good manners to talk to the person. Many times, differently-abled people are overlooked; talked about instead of included in conversations. If you want to talk to a person who is facing physical or mental challenges, at least have the courtesy to talk to the person first.

How can you help?

It is extremely costly to procure and train an assistance dog and his or her human partner. Find a training organization near you, and commit to helping them give someone a dog.

You can make a direct cash donation or provide needed supplies such as treats, toys, dishes, crates, paper towels, all-purpose cleaners, towels, or gift cards to pet supply stores.

If you live near a training center, consider fostering a puppy or volunteering at the facility. If you’re a breeder, donate a puppy.

If you or someone you know is in need of an assistance dog, check out the state-by-state resource list from the American Dog Trainers Network.

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