They help guide the blind, are an extra set of ears for the deaf, and make everyday life a little easier for someone with disabilities. They’re assistance dogs, and they are genuinely man’s (and woman’s) best friend to the people they help. In honor of these hard-working canines, here’s an overview of who they are, what they do, and what you can do as a dog-lover to help them.
What are Assistance Dogs?
According to Assistance Dogs International, there are three types of assistance dogs: guide dogs, hearing dogs and service dogs.
1. Guide Dogs: In general, guide dogs help blind and visually impaired people get around. Guide dogs are especially beneficial with helping their charges cross busy intersections, navigate stairs and avoid obstacles when out and about. These dogs work from cues that are given by their people, but they are also trained to disobey cues if the cue would mean putting their person in danger, such as stepping off a curb into traffic too soon.
According to Guide Dogs of America, the breeds most often used as guide dogs include Labrador Retrievers (which is the breed most often used for guide dog programs around the world), Golden Retrievers and German Shepherd Dogs.
2. Hearing Dogs: These dogs are trained to assist deaf and hard of hearing people, alerting them to sounds both indoors and out. In an indoor setting, a hearing dog might help his person hear a variety of household sounds, including a doorbell, telephone, kitchen timer, baby cry or smoke alarm. Outdoors, these dogs will alert their charges to sounds such as horns honking, emergency sirens or someone calling their name.
The majority of hearing dog applicants request small and medium-sized dogs, according to Assistance Dogs International, so many hearing dogs are Shetland Sheepdog size and smaller. Hearing dogs must also be friendly and affectionate toward people, so breeds like Poodles, Shih Tzus and Lhasa Apsos do well in this role.
3. Service Dogs: A sort of catch-all group of assistance dogs that help people with disabilities other than vision and hearing, service dogs can be trained to work in any number of capacities that help with living more independently. You might see a service dog helping a wheelchair-bound person pick up a dropped item from the floor, open a door or turn off a light. Some service dogs also help their charges walk by acting as a brace for their person to lean on. Some people with autism, seizures or diabetes also employ service dogs to help make their life a little easier. Service dogs are also employed to help wounded and recovering combat veterans adjust to living with injuries.
Traditionally, German Shepherd Dogs, Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers are employed as service dogs because they are intelligent and easily trained. But size matters for some service dogs. According to Service Dog Central, Mastiffs are can be used for mobility work because of their large size, and Chihuahuas are used as diabetic or seizure-alert dogs because they are small and can fit easily on a person’s lap.
Typically, any breed or mixed breed of dog has the potential to be a service dog, provided the dog is calm, confident, biddable, intelligent, healthy and easily trainable.
Help Them Help Others
As wonderful as they are, assistance dogs weren’t born that way: it took countless hours of training and nurturing from individuals dedicated to helping these dogs grow up to fulfill their assisting destinies.
Most canine assistance organizations have volunteer “puppy raising” programs, in which dog-lovers provide homes to specially bred puppies for a period of time. Puppy raisers do everything for their budding the assistance-dogs-in-training, from feeding them nutritious food, to taking them to obedience classes, to socializing them to all sorts of people, places and objects.
To get started, potential puppy raisers must fill out an application with the organization, which then checks out the potential raiser’s home and living situation. Volunteers must be willing to commit to raising the puppy for an agreed-upon period (anywhere from six months to almost two years). Most organizations, such as Autism Service Dogs of America, require that their puppy raisers attend weekly obedience classes and social outings, such as visits to parks, restaurants and shopping malls.
If raising a puppy sounds like something you can do to help assistance dogs, check out the volunteer opportunities with an assistance dog organization local to you.
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
Leader Dogs for the Blind
Rochester Hills, Mich.
Assistance Dogs International
A coalition of not-for-profit assistance dog organizations
More Assistance Dogs