Assistance Dogs help people with disabilities become more able and give them more freedom and independence. They are trained to help their person with specific tasks. There are several different kinds of assistance dogs:
- Guide dogs are for people who are blind or visually impaired. They help their person avoid obstacles and keep them safe while walking.
- Hearing dogs help those who are deaf and hard of hearing. They are trained to alert their person to sounds such as a doorbell, telephone or a crying baby.
- Service dogs are trained to help people with all types of disabilities: Those who are in a wheelchair or have difficulty walking, people with autism, those who have medical issues like seizures or low blood sugar, and people with mental health issues. These dogs can be trained to open doors, turn lights on and off, pick up dropped items, help with balance, and provide deep pressure which can be calming.
Organizations that train assistance dogs sometimes need volunteers to take care of a mother dog who is having puppies that will be trained as assistance dogs or be a ‘puppy raiser’ and take care of a puppy from about 8 weeks to 1 year old before the puppy starts training as an assistance dog.
Therapy and Emotional Assistance Animals provide comfort, affection, and help relieve stress. Research into using animals in medical and mental health treatment, or animal-assisted therapy, started in the 1960s when a child psychologist named Boris Levinson wrote about the positive effect his dog had on his patients. More recently, therapy and emotional assistance animals are being used to help people with cancer, dementia, and mental health disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and autism. Research on whether therapy and emotional assistance animals really help people has shown that interacting with animals can reduce anxiety and boost positive emotions.
Therapy and emotional assistance animals visit people in nursing homes, hospitals, schools, and homeless shelters or after a natural disaster such as a tornado or hurricane to provide love and comfort. Therapy dogs are typically a family pet that has received training with their owner, and they go wherever they are needed. They even visit airports to help people who are traveling, which I hear can be very stressful! Assisted living facilities and nursing homes sometimes have animals that live there and provide constant companionship for the human residents.
When we hear about therapy animals, it’s usually dogs, but almost any animal can be a therapy or emotional assistance animal. Caring for and riding horses can be helpful for people with behavioral issues and have been shown to lower blood pressure so it’s probably good for everyone! Cats and smaller animals like rabbits and guinea pigs can provide the same type of support and comfort as their larger friends – and even birds like me can be helpful!
One of the great things a therapy animal can do is help kids learn to read. Some kids have trouble reading or are self-conscious reading in front of their classmates and when they sit down to read to a dog (for these programs, it’s mostly dogs that are the helpers!), they know that the dog won’t judge them so they relax and just focus on their reading. Associating reading with something that makes them happy helps improve their reading skills and encourages them to become excited about reading.
Search and Rescue Dogs help police and fire departments find people who are lost or missing. Dogs are especially good at this because of their excellent sense of smell, and they are trained to locate a person based on scent. They can help find a missing child or a senior person with Alzheimer’s disease who has wandered away from home. They may also help locate someone who has been buried in an avalanche or in a collapsed building after an earthquake. Sadly, search and rescue dogs are also trained to find the bodies of people who have been killed in an accident or natural disaster. Search and rescue dogs were used after the attacks on 9/11 and there are now exhibits at the American Kennel Club and the 9/11 Memorial and Museum honoring these dogs.
Humans and animals make a great team in all kinds of situations! Here are some places to look if you want to learn more:
Assistance Dogs International: www.assistancedogsinternational.org
Therapy Dogs International: www.tdi-dog.org
Search and Rescue Dogs of the United States: htps://sardogus.org