Most people have heard of Guide Dogs, also often miscommunicated as "Blind Dogs". However, few have heard about many of the ways dogs can physically and metaphorically open doors for people with disabilities and medical conditions, leading them to improved independence, better quality of life and enhanced mental and physical wellbeing.Assistance Dogs are dogs who are trained to do tasks to support a person with a medical condition or disability. This includes:
- Guide Dogs who guide blind and visually impaired people;
- Hearing Dogs who alert deaf people to sounds;
- Disability Assistance Dogs who support people with a wide range of disabilities, doing tasks to physically assist their partner;
- Medical Alert Assistance Dogs who provide life-saving medical alerts for conditions including Diabetes, POTS and Addison's Disease;
- Seizure Alert Dogs who give people with epilepsy a warning of an impending seizure so they can get to a safe place;
- Autism Assistance Dogs who support children with autism, they are attached to the dog via a harness to stop bolting and to improve anxiety and to help them cope with situations, with the dog being under control of an adult, and also there have been some steps in training Autism Assistance Dogs for adults too, but these will work in a different way to those for children;
- Psychiatric Assistance Dogs who are trained to perform tasks to help someone with a psychiatric condition such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and others.
- There are also dual-trained dogs, these are dogs who provide assistance in more than one category, such as Hetty the dual-trained Guide and Seizure Alert Dog trained by both Guide Dogs and Support Dogs, and Tatum the dual-trained Hearing and Disability Assistance Dog trained by both Hearing Dogs and Canine Partners.
These dogs may be trained by an organisation, within the Assistance Dogs UK coalition, an organisation outside of Assistance Dogs UK or be trained by the individual themselves, which is known as "Owner-Trained".
Assistance Dogs are highly trained to ensure they can work safely in public and can cope with the demands of being a working dog. These dogs love their job. They love to help. Being an Assistance Dog is a mutually beneficial relationship for dog and owner; for the dog, they get a great life, get to go to many places and get enough exercise and for these dogs, assisting their owner is a fun game. For the human partner, the dog brings all the physical assistance as well as enhanced mood, improved wellbeing, greater independence but also a sense of responsibility, which can never be underestimated. The dog needs them and this can be pivotal in a person's life. Assistance Dogs transform lives.
People have a preconception that Assistance Dogs are only Labradors or Golden Retrievers, but this couldn't be more untrue. Dogs of all breeds and all shapes and sizes can become Assistance Dogs, provided they have the right temperament and training. For example, my Assistance Dog is a Working Cocker Spaniel, Medical Detection Dogs have a Toy Poodle Medical Alert Assistance Dog, Dog A.I.D have a Leonberger, Guide Dogs have an Italian Spinone, Support Dogs had a Jack Russell, Canine Partners have Labradoodles, Hearing Dogs use Cockapoos - you can see it's not just 'goldies' and 'labs' who become Assistance Dogs. Also, not all dogs are bred to be Assistance Dogs; many charities use donated puppies, some of the charities use rescue dogs and Dog A.I.D, Medical Detection Dogs, Support Dogs and Canine Generated Independence train people's own pet dogs or support them to train their pet dogs themselves.
I would know. I am the proud owner of Assistance Dog Molly, who was trained by me with help from the Assistance Dog UK member organisation Dog Assistance in Disability. Dog A.I.D, as they are known, support physically disabled people to train their pet dog to become their Assistance Dog, working over three levels of training and assessments to ensure they are of the standard necessary to work in public, they do tasks to mitigate their owner's disability and are a happy, balanced, well-rounded working dog. Molly has completely transformed my life, she did just by entering my life as an eight week old puppy in March 2013 but her training enhanced this more and more as she progressed through the levels of training and then her qualification signalled the start of a whole new life for us both. Without Molly I wouldn't have had the confidence to start doing voluntary work, which I started the year we got Molly, and I certainly wouldn't be doing all the work I do and have received an MBE at the age of 22. I owe Molly so much. Molly does tasks including picking up dropped items, fetching help, undressing me, fetching the post, loading and unloading the washing machine, pressing door entry buttons and more. However, Molly also taught herself a task, one that is not recognised as part of her qualification: she will alert me three or more hours before my temperature spikes, a sign I have a severe infection or even sepsis (septicaemia) as I do not get early warning signs. She has never been wrong with an alert. Molly has undoubtedly saved my life.
We underestimate dogs. We're only scratching the surface of what we can achieve with dogs. From the bio-detection dogs sniffing out cancer and Parkinson's disease, to Community Dogs going to schools to work with children, to Pets as Therapy dogs, to Molly the 'cat detection' dog who helps find lost cats, to the dog helping with rehabilitation in a spinal injury unit and to Assistance Dogs partnered directly with people in the aforementioned list as well as Dementia Dogs, partnered with people with dementia. Then there's the public service dogs, including police dogs, bomb, drug and money detection dogs, fire dogs and search and rescue dogs. Dogs open up doors in so many ways. We do not appreciate just how amazing they are and just how much they can do.
This week it's International Assistance Dog Week (6th - 12th August 2017). This week is raising awareness of Assistance Dogs and what they can do and celebrates how they transform lives.