There’s nothing cuter than coming across a cute little puppy wearing colored vests – yes, a service dog-in-training! You’ve probably seen them at the mall, in the grocery store, or on the street. Perhaps you’ve seen fully trained service dogs assisting their owners by guiding them through stores or crossing a road.
This week marks International Assistance Dog Week – a time to recognize assistance dogs and their puppy raisers and trainers, and raise awareness, and educate the public, about assistance dogs. Assistance dogs dramatically change the lives of people, assisting them in the day-to-day activities (such as going to school, working, cooking, shopping, vacationing, etc.) that many of take us for granted, and enabling them to live independently. Assistance dogs help keep their owners safe while they negotiate public spaces and use public transportation, helping them navigate stairs, curbs and doors.
Assistance dogs (also known as service or guide dogs) have been around for centuries. Evidence of dogs leading the blind goes as far back as 79 AD in wall-paintings in Pompeii! Following the First World War in Germany, many men were returning home from the front line blinded by poison gas. Dr. Stalling, a German doctor, got the idea to train dogs by coincidence. He left his dog with a blind patient, and upon his return, saw that his dog was watching out for the patient. Dr. Stalling began working on a program to train dogs as reliable assistance dogs for the blind. This program opened the door to train dogs far beyond their initial use as guides for the visually impaired. Now dogs can act as aids for people with a wide range of disabilities and medical conditions.
Assistance dogs can range from guide dogs for those who are visually impaired, to hearing dogs for those who are hearing impaired, to service dogs for those with epilepsy (detecting, alerting or responding to seizures). Some service dogs work with veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as well as other conditions after active duty. Some work with those who live with conditions like autism and Down syndrome.
Dogs that are well-suited to this type of work usually have a quiet and calm disposition, a high level of intelligence and motivation to learn, good concentration, and a strong drive to work. The breeds that are most commonly trained as assistance dogs include Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, and Standard Poodles, as their intelligence, size, and temperament make them well-suited for service work. Many large and mixed breeds, however, can be successfully trained as assistance dogs.
Typically, a “puppy raiser” will receive a puppy when it’s about 8 weeks of age and provide training for the “basics” (i.e., how to behave in public, including becoming used to different people, noises, and situations. Once the puppy is returned to the assistance dog center, the formal training, which can last from 3 to 9 months, begins.
As a reminder on etiquette, when around a puppy- or dog-in-training or fully qualified assistance dog:
- Do not pet the dog
- Do not talk to the dog
- Do not distract the dog in any way
Remember too, to speak to the handler instead of the dog.
Assistance dogs play an important role in our communities, with so many people and so many families. Assistance dogs can help those with special needs navigate the ins and outs of their daily lives and even empower independent living. This week celebrate the many ways in which assistance dogs make a difference – because they do!