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Pet Talk: Assistance dogs offer a new sense of freedom

March 2, 2011

From College of Veterinary Medicine, Texas A&M University

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 established.

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 adviser 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 and independence.”

About 15,000 individuals use assistance dogs in the United States, and many 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.”

Several national organizations train and place assistance dogs with their owners. Each organization has different methods 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 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 year.

“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 pet.

“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.

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the web at http://tamunews.tamu.edu. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to editor@cvm.tamu.edu.

From the March 2-8, 2011, issue

2 Comments

  1. Jeff

    March 2, 2011 at 9:43 pm

    As someone who is in the process of getting a service dog I greatly appreciate this article. However I feel it left out an important and growing segment of service dogs, those for people with neurological disabilities especially those on the Autistic Spectrum. All of the examples in the article were of physical disabilities, yet there are many places that are dedicated to training service dogs specifically for Autism type disorders.

    This article is great for raising public awareness, especially going into the laws protecting service dogs and their owners. However it would be rare for someone to question the rights of a guide dog for a vision-impaired individual or a hearing dog, but an apparently healthy child accompanied by a dog is more likely to be questioned.

    It is hard enough dealing with disorders in which the stares and comments from an unaware public can be as difficult as the disorder itself. I am hopeful that once we get a service dog we will not have to continue struggling with an uninformed public. I just wish this very good article for awareness would have included this type of disability.

  2. Davina

    March 11, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    I agree with Jeff; I loved this article, but wish it had included information about dogs trained to assist with neurologic and mental disorders. As someone with severe PTSD, who is not a Vetran, I have had to train my own animal (who may be experiencing a career change, due to tempermant requirements) because unless you ARE a Vet, you cannot aquire a psychiatric service dog. Having to train my own animal has been stressful enough (not a good thing, with PTSD), but I have to endure endless questions and challenges regarding my disability because of it’s nature. I would love to see an article similar to this one that deals with unseen disabilities.

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