A New Age for Assistance Dogs

Empowered by innovative training and cutting-edge technology, service dogs are changing lives in amazing ways.

In 1928 a blind man, Morris Frank, opened the world’s eyes to new possibilities for dogs aiding mankind when, guided by his partner dog Buddy, he stepped off a curb and safely crossed West Street in New York City.

Frank went on to found The Seeing Eye, the first guide dog school in the U.S. Today we are at the dawn of a new age in which  dogs are being  taught to perform a variety of new tasks — and sometimes being paired with technology — to  provide freedom and independence for people with a wide range of service and assistance needs.

Detecting — and stopping — seizures

At age 27, Terri Krake was living her dream of serving in the police force. Then, on a routine day in 1984, an overturned gasoline truck burst into flames and exploded, throwing her 50 feet vertically into the air. She landed on her head, and in a split second her world shattered. “The injuries left me with debilitating seizures lasting from 15 to 45 minutes,” says Krake, who lives in Minneapolis.

In 2008, to help curtail the seizures, Krake’s doctors implanted a small electrical device called a vagus nerve stimulator under her skin near her collarbone. Every five minutes, the VNS fires an electrical impulse to the vagus nerve at the base of Krake’s brain to interrupt a seizure. Krake also received a special magnet to swipe across her collarbone, manually triggering the device at the first sign of an attack.

But Krake was unable to swipe the magnet because she never knew when the seizures were coming, a condition called “seizure unawareness.” “It sat in a drawer for two years while I grew more depressed,” she says.

Then, in 2010, Krake applied for a seizure response dog from Can Do Canines in New Hope, Minn. In addition to the regular service dog skills such as fetching her medicine and cordless emergency phone, or triggering her Life Alert button to summon emergency aid, Krake asked if the organization could train her service dog to use the VNS magnet.

“We had never done anything like that before, but we thought, ‘Why not?’” says Alan Peters, executive director of Can Do Canines, which has trained more than 400 service dogs since 1989.

Can Do Canines matched Krake with a black Labrador Retriever named Brody, now age 4. The trainers there attached the VNS magnet onto Brody’s collar and taught him to “snuggle” with Krake at the first sign of a seizure. “Brody lies across her chest, positioning his head so the magnet on his collar falls against her collarbone and triggers the VNS,” Peters explains.

In the first year, Brody activated the VNS 55 times, stopping the seizures at their onset. He has also began pre-alerting Krake, allowing her time to lie down so he can perform the snuggle prior to a seizure.

While Peters says Brody is the first dog trained to activate a vagus nerve stimulator, he hopes the example will prompt other seizure-dog organizations to follow suit.

Krake says that even after Brody retires, he will never leave her side. “He is my guardian angel.”

New freedom for the sight-impaired

Combining service dogs with advanced technology is also creating new possibilities in the guide dog world.

Carroll Jackson has logged more than 300 airplane flights in  five years. Drop him into a new city and he maneuvers about with confidence and ease, locating restaurants, hotels, and the nearest Starbucks as if he’d lived there for years. Not bad, considering that he is totally blind.
The Jacksonville, Ill., resident owes his independence to an innovative mobility program pioneered by Leader Dogs for the Blind of Rochester Hills, Mich., the second-oldest guide dog training organization in the U.S.

In 2007, Leader Dogs partnered with Kapsys, a French technology company, to develop a hand-held, voice-directed GPS guidance system for the visually impaired. The third generation of the device, the Kapten Mobility, was introduced in 2012. The voice-driven device guides pedestrians as they walk, announcing and updating their position, and even telling the users which side of the street they are on.

“Leader Dogs recognized the potential to combine the safety of a guide dog with the mobility of a GPS system, providing an unprecedented level of freedom and independence to the visually impaired,” says Rod Haneline, Leader Dogs’ chief programs and services officer. The organization provides the units free to U.S. and Canadian graduates of its guide-dog program.

The Kapten Mobility vocally interacts with users, providing detailed information on their location, destination, and the route they should take to get there. Features include announce- ments of street names, distances to intersections, names of each street at intersections, and addresses of the nearest buildings. It can also search destinations such as restaurants, hotels, and government buildings by category, listing them from closest to farthest. Once users reach a location, such as a class at a university, they can mark it with a “K-tag” to easily return to favorite spots. The guide dog provides guidance no machine can, leading them to the front door, to the counter where they can order food or a drink, or to an open table.
Jackson, whose guide dog, Hunter, age 7, accompanies him everywhere, hopes that one day, GPS systems will be a part of every guide-dog program. “It’s the perfect synergy,” he says. “My GPS system orients me to my environment, while Hunter navigates me safely through it.”

A teenager’s lifeline

Sixteen-year-old Dylan Calamoneri of Danville, Calif., is a typical teenage boy who loves sports and hanging out with friends. The last thing Dylan, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 6, wants to do is constantly think about checking his blood sugar levels. But Dylan’s mom, Andrea, worries that if he doesn’t keep on top of it, the consequences could be severe.

Enter Celeste, age 4, a 60-pound yellow Labrador Retriever from Dogs4Diabetics in Concord, Calif. Since the two were matched in July 2011, Celeste has accompanied Dylan virtually everywhere, alerting him when his blood sugar levels are dropping to dangerous levels.
“It’s a lot less judgmental when your dog nags you than when your mother does,” Andrea Calamoneri says.

Susan Millhollon, executive director of Dogs4Dia- betics, which has placed about 100 diabetes alert dogs since 2004, agrees. “The dogs give kids a sense of freedom and independence from their parents, while giving parents an added sense of comfort,” she says.

And while Millhollon notes that diabetic service dogs are not a replacement for a glucose monitor, she says they play an especially important role for kids. “When a dog alerts, the kid knows there’s something going on, even if they feel fine,” she says. “Without the dog saying, ‘Hey, buddy, you’ve got an issue,’ it’s tempting for kids to put off checking themselves, and that can be dangerous.”

Calamoneri agrees. Since Dylan has had Celeste, he hasn’t had one diabetic emergency. “And that’s the greatest peace of mind I could ask for as a parent,” she says.

The dogs have such a keen ability to detect low blood sugar levels that sometimes, during training sessions, they have alerted on people who didn’t even know they were diabetic.

A child’s window to the world

Lewis, age 21/2, a 78-pound Golden Retriever-Labrador Retriever mix, doesn’t perform any physically lifesaving tasks. But for Elliot Taylor and his parents, Dan and Dorene, of Grosse Pointe, Mich., Lewis is a true hero.

Elliot, now 7, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in 2009. Lewis, an autism service dog from Paws With A Cause in Wayland, Mich., joined the Taylors’ lives in June 2012. “Lewis’ impact on Elliot has been astonishing,” Dan Taylor says. “He’s teaching him how to function in a world that is not geared for autistic people.”

Taylor describes a recent trip to a crowded mall — the kind of stressful situation that can trigger a meltdown in an autistic child. While waiting outside a store for his wife with Elliot and Lewis, Taylor suddenly felt a tug on his arm. “Dad, Elliot needs my Lewis,” his son said.

Taylor immediately signaled Lewis into a down position. Elliot laid across Lewis, stroking his ears and listening to his heartbeat. A few minutes later, Elliot stood up, calm and ready to finish their errands.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Taylor says. “At 7 years old, Elliot was able to troubleshoot his own situation and self-soothe, which is virtually unheard (of) for an autistic child. We owe that to Lewis.”

Mike Hanna, a trainer for Paws With A Cause, is not surprised. “Society has typically focused on the physical tasks of service dogs, but (service dogs for autistic children show) what can be accomplished in the social skills realm,” he says. The organization, founded in 1979, launched an autism service dog program in 2009 in response to increasing demand.

Taylor agrees. “Lewis is Elliot’s anchor,” he says. “He has helped develop in Elliot the sense that there are others outside himself.”
Lewis also serves as a physical anchor for Elliot. When on walks, Elliot wears a wrist cuff tethered to Lewis’ vest that prevents Elliot from bolting, a common issue with autistic children.

But Lewis’ most important role is his relationship with Elliot. Children with autism struggle with social skills, and the service dog gives the autistic child something very important that he or she may lack: a friend.

“To see my son happy and affectionate with another being is priceless,” Taylor says. “Until you’ve lived it, it’s hard to get people to understand. The change is dramatic.” 


Want to learn more about these four great organizations, and how you can help? The organizations mentioned in this article provide their service dogs for free or for a nominal administrative charge. If you or someone you know can benefit from a service dog, these resources will get you started:

Can Do Canines
New Hope, Minn.
(Cost: $50 application fee)

Paws With A Cause
Wayland, Mich.
(Cost: Free)

Concord, Calif.
(Cost: $50 application fee plus $100 fee to offset the cost of class supplies)

Leader Dogs for the Blind
Rochester Hills, Mich.
(Cost: Free)

Assistance Dogs International
A coalition of not-for-profit assistance dog organizations

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