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Given appropriate training, dogs can be an enormous benefit to people with disabilities. With the help of an assistance dog, people with disabilities are better equipped to overcome physical and psychological challenges, helping them lead more fulfilling and more independent lifestyles. If a disability is imposing physical or mental limitations on your independence, an assistance dog could be the key to providing you greater freedom and security.
What makes an assistance dog?
There are a number of key qualities that separate assistance dogs from regular dogs. Generally, assistance dogs need to be calm, obedient, reliable and able to ignore distractions whilst ‘on duty’. Other sought-after traits for assistance dogs include an affectionate demeanour, adaptive learning skills and intelligent behaviour when confronted with sounds and signals.
While it is not necessary that an assistance dog be of a particular breed, there are a number of breeds that are more suitable for training as assistance or therapy dogs. The Golden Retriever, the Labrador, the Belgian Malinois and the Alaskan Malamute are all breeds that are commonly selected when training dogs for these roles.
How is an assistance dog trained?
Assistance and therapy dogs usually begin their training – a process that takes between 6 and 12 months – as puppies. In most cases, assistance dogs can only be adopted by a person with disabilities after their training is complete. However, there have been cases where abandoned dogs or dogs already owned by someone with a disability have been retrained as assistance dogs.
The training process usually consists of teaching the dog how to perform simple tasks that their new owner may find difficult. This includes:
- Closing and opening doors
- Collecting items
- Ringing doorbells
- Switching on/off light switches or buttons
- Helping their owner remove and change their shoes or clothes
- Retrieving a nearby wheelchair
In some circumstances, an assistance dog is also trained to protect their owner or fetch help if their owner is in trouble.
What types of assistance dogs are there for specific disabilities?
- Physical disabilities: Assistance dogs trained to assist individuals with physical disabilities specialize in performing everyday physical tasks that their owner may find challenging.
- Hearing Impairments: If you have a hearing difficulty, your assistance dog will be specially trained to alert you to a number of sounds, including doorbells, telephones, babies crying or alarms. Generally, the assistance dog will also lead its owner to the source of the noise.
- Visual impairments: Also known as ‘guide dogs’, assistance dogs for the visually impaired are a great asset. The presence of a guide dog whilst venturing out of the house will give a person with a disability more confidence and security without the assistance of another individual.
- Medical Conditions: Trained to assist owners with conditions such as epilepsy or diabetes, assistance dogs can be trained to alert their owners of oncoming episodes or a drop in blood sugar levels. They can also be trained to keep elderly individuals company and run for help in the event of an emergency.
- Autism: For those living with autism, a therapy dog is beneficial in reducing the disruptive behaviour associated with the condition. Particularly advantageous for children with autism, these therapy dogs usually form a strong bond with their owner, providing them with a source of calmness and avenue for the development of fine motor skills.
- Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT): Therapy dogs involved in AAT are generally used as a therapeutic outlet for individuals with mental disorders, drug addictions, and criminal behavioural issues. AAT dogs provide much needed affection and companionship for those feeling isolated or alone and provides an excellent learning opportunity for former delinquents who wish to be integrated back into society.
How do I get an assistance dog?
Having an assistance dog can be a life changing decision and it is important to consider the repercussions that having a new pet will have on your own wellbeing, as well as the dog’s. It is equally important to remember that an assistance dog will also need caring for. Therefore, opting for an assistance dog may not be advisable if you are unable to properly care for, or meet the dog’s needs.
Assistance and therapy dogs are the first choice for most individuals living with a disability, therefore, waiting lists are usually quite long. When an individual applies for an assistance dog, the associations training the dogs need to make sure that you will receive a dog trained especially to your needs and that the dog you are matched with is the right fit for your capabilities. Generally, you will undergo a number of ‘joint training sessions’ with your assigned assistance dog, a process which can take several months.
If you are interested in adopting an assistance dog for a child with a disability, it is important that the child is old enough to assume some responsibility for the dog. This is crucial for the dog, as if the child is not old enough or unable to assume any responsibly, the dog will struggle to realise that the child is their master and may not be helping the child as best they can. Even simply brushing their assistance dog everyday can be enough to prevent any confusion for the dog.
Institutes such as Assistance Dogs Australia and Guide Dogs Australia are just some of the many organisations offering individuals with disabilities access to assistance and therapy dogs. If you are interested in applying for an assistance dog, contact these agencies for further information.
If you live with a disability and are interested in improving your quality of life by other means, visit the Sunrise Medical blog to learn more about our mobility solutions and peruse our extensive range of manual wheelchair and powered wheelchairs.