Part of International Assistance Dog Week, August 1-7, 2021, Assistance Dog Day celebrates service dogs and their trainers for the vital roles they play in the lives of individuals with physical and emotional support needs. Honored on August 4, this day was started by Marcie Davis—a paraplegic of 40 years, author, Pet Life Radio Show host, and founder of the Working Like Dogs website. Partnering with assistance dogs for more than 20 years, she is a familiar and powerful voice in advocating for assistance dogs.
Types of Assistance Dogs
Assistance dogs serve a variety of roles, including guide dogs, medical alert dogs, and emotional support dogs. Individuals using their services are quite literally putting their lives in the paws of these dogs, with the owners' health and livelihood reliant on their assistance dogs' training and quick action. In addition to serving a crucial role in the lives of their humans, they are also adorable and loving pets when they’re not hard at work helping or protecting.
Guide dogs support:
- Visually-impaired individuals
- Hearing-impaired individuals
Medical alert dogs can recognize the signs of:
- Heart attacks
- Panic Attacks
- Post-traumatic Stress (PTSD) episodes
Emotional support dogs provide comfort to those who suffer from:
- Specific phobias
Emotional support dogs are considered pets and not service dogs, although their services can be lawfully prescribed by licensed mental health professionals. The American Kennel Club offers a clear explanation of the difference between trained assistance/service dogs and emotional support dogs.
The Role of Assistance Dogs
To the many individuals who need them, assistance dogs are everyday heroes. These specially-trained furry companions are selflessly dedicated to their owners, demonstrating devotion on a level unmatched by most human-to-human relationships. They are largely responsible for the fact that many individuals with disabilities or physical limitations are able to prosper, live independently, and safely navigate the world around them. They become cherished members of the family, with mutual love and respect that grows quickly.
The training process is rigorous, with any dog breed suitable for assistance work if properly trained. The breed might help determine which service it will best perform, depending on its characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses. The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, for example, is known for being a wonderful emotional support dog for those battling depression or PTSD due to their cuddly, affectionate nature. Labradors and Golden Retrievers are commonly trained as guide dogs, due to their laid-back personalities and stable temperament.
The results of their training are nothing short of astounding, with assistance dogs able to help limited mobility individuals with everyday tasks such as opening drawers and doors, dressing, carrying items, balancing, and more. Guide dogs assist their visually impaired individuals in a number of ways to ensure their safety and successful movement, such as crossing streets, avoiding objects while walking, sitting, being aware of stairs, and more. Similarly, hearing-impaired individuals can trust their guide dogs to alert them of a ringing telephone, doorbell, fire alarm, siren, alarm clock, and more.
Longevity of Assistance Dogs
As veterinarians, we understand the importance of keeping assistance dogs at their peak health so they may continue to serve their owners for as long as possible. It’s also imperative that a veterinarian assess a dog for optimal health before training to become an assistance dog, as any ailments could be exacerbated with the demands of training and service. You also want to ensure they are physically capable of the tasks expected of them, which could be difficult for a dog that might be experiencing health issues such as joint pain.
As Assistance Dog Day approaches on August 4, we should all do our parts to advocate for these amazing companions as well as the trainers who work tirelessly to teach the skills that make them such valuable pets to those in need. If you are interested in finding an assistance dog, organizations such as Assistance Dogs International exist to help you start the process. They also advocate for legally allowing assistance dogs into locations where pets are not typically permitted, so they can be of service to their humans at all times.
If you are wondering whether you might qualify for an assistance dog or you’d like more information on how to become a trainer or have another role in the process, feel free to give us a call. We’re happy to point you in the right direction!