Humans and canines forged a mutually beneficial relationship 40,000 years ago. In exchange for food and shelter, dogs would herd sheep, guard the camp, pull carts, and flush out and retrieve game. Today, most of us don’t hunt and keep sheep—we go to the supermarket to purchase our dinner—but dogs are still very useful to us.
Dogs can be trained to assist people with disabilities because of their innate desire to please and their genetic predisposition for work. In 1928, Buddy, the first guide dog for the blind, came to the United States from Switzerland. In 1975, Bonita Bergin began to train assistance dogs for people with disabilities other than blindness. Numerous organizations have since been established to train assistance dogs.
Assistance Dog Roles
Canine graduates of assistance dog training programs, who wear colorful vests or backpacks with patches that say, “Working. Please don’t pet,” perform an ever-increasing number of tasks. Assistance dogs, including service dogs, guide dogs, and hearing dogs, differ from therapy dogs and emotional service animals. Assistance dogs are typically limited to specific breeds, go through an advanced training process, and are allowed in all public areas with their human companion, unlike therapy and emotional service dogs.
Service dogs assist people with a variety of impairments by pulling wheelchairs, picking up dropped items, turning lights on and off, retrieving things from the refrigerator, opening doors, pushing elevator buttons, and performing monetary exchanges at banks and cash registers. Some service dogs are trained to alert to the onset of seizures or low blood sugar levels. Some accompany children with cerebral palsy or autism, helping them with everything from balance to speaking and socializing.
Guide dogs are trained to help the blind or visually impaired safely navigate their environment. These dogs help their human companion avoid obstacles by navigating them around objects and halting before curbs, stairs, and other changes in elevation. They can also locate exits, door knobs, and empty seating.
Hearing dogs are trained to alert the deaf or hard of hearing to sounds, such as the doorbell ringing, a baby crying, and smoke alarms. Some are also trained to retrieve dropped objects, carry urgent messages between household members, and alert their companion to an approaching vehicle.
Where Do Assistance Dogs Come From?
Some organizations find their potential assistance dogs in shelters. Because the demand for these dogs is increasing and there is a limited number of fitting shelter dogs, assistance dog organizations have started their own breeding programs. These dogs are mostly Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherd Dogs, and Standard Poodles (for clients with allergies). Parents are carefully selected for their health, trainability, and temperament. These pups are bred in experienced breeders’ and caretakers’ loving homes, not in kennels.
Puppy Training Process
At eight weeks old, each pup is delivered to a puppy raiser, whose experience with dogs and home environment have been screened. For the next 18 months, the puppy raiser works to transform these wiggling, pooping, yapping balls of fur into confident, well-behaved dogs. It is a large commitment of time and energy.
The puppy raiser’s job is to socialize the puppies in a loving, safe environment. The pup must be exposed to various situations that he might encounter with his future partner, such as visiting malls, banks, post offices, elevators, trains, buses, street fairs, church services, business offices, and theaters. Doing so will ensure that the dog is relaxed and focused in public no matter where he goes.
In addition to learning to go to the bathroom on command and walk calmly on a leash, the pup must learn the basic obedience commands that every good dog should know, including sit, down, up, wait, off, stay, and more. Many of these commands form the basis for the more complex skills that he will learn when he moves on to advanced training. For instance, up is used to perform monetary transactions in stores and banks. The dog puts his front paws on the counter, hands the money to the clerk with his mouth, receives the change, and gives it to his companion.
All puppy-raising organizations provide manuals explaining everything from basic grooming to explicit details of teaching commands. All offer regular classes in which commands are practiced and issues are addressed, such as food guarding. Puppy program managers are always available for a phone consultation or an individual lesson. Every effort is made to ensure that the pup will become a full-fledged working dog.
Guide dogs need to have a different mind-set than other assistance dogs; they must know when to be “intelligently disobedient” and ignore the command to cross the street when a car is coming. Other assistance dogs must be totally obedient and, therefore, are trained differently.
Teaching each dog how to walk with his companion is the most obvious difference. An assistance dog must walk in heel position on either side of the person whereas a guide dog must walk slightly ahead to lead the person. A guide dog cannot play fetch because it teaches him to give chase, but a service dog can. Guide dogs can play tug-of-war, but service dogs cannot, because tug is a command that is used in a specific context.
Advanced Training Process
When the pup is about 18 months old, he returns to his original organization to receive formal advanced training. The puppy raiser, armed with a box of tissues, hands the leash over in a formal ceremony. The dog is then assigned to a professional trainer who, using positive reinforcement training methods, teaches him the advanced skill set that he must master.
If after six to nine months of advanced training the dog shows adequate intelligence, health, stamina, and willingness to perform the necessary skills, he enters “team training,” in which he is matched up with a person who learns how to work with him. Only about 40% of dogs bred for guide or assistance work actually succeed; some are released for medical issues and some are too energetic or too laid-back for the work.
In another emotion-packed ceremony, the puppy raiser again hands over the leash, this time to his lifetime partner.
Florence Scarinci has worked as a veterinary assistant, trained service dogs, and owned and operated a pet-sitting service. She has two Pembroke Welsh Corgis who compete in agility, rally, and obedience. Her cats compete for the food bowls and the sunniest spot on the couch. For the past 13 years she has been involved in Bideawee’s Animal Assisted Therapy program with her two Corgis and participates in Reading to Dogs programs in local elementary schools and libraries.