In previous articles, we talked about the uniqueness of dogs and the great appreciation we have for them. As if being unconditional companions and devout pets of any human, kind or mean, rich or poor, wasn’t enough, dogs are also dedicated workers and committed athletes.
These gifted creatures never hesitate to put their talents at our service either to help us accomplish small goals or to contribute to humanity’s greatest achievements. Dogs are always ready to assist their humans, regardless of the effort required or the complexity of the task. The news often feature dogs that became heroes by instinctively protecting their human friends, usually caring for the weakest, most vulnerable or disadvantaged individuals, which are, generally, the children of the families.
In order to take advantage of this natural ability of dogs to care for others, they started to receive training in the assistance of people with disabilities, whether these are physical or intellectual. This innovation lead to the appearance of a special type of professional working dogs called assistance dogs.
The earliest reference to the existence of service dogs goes back to a nineteenth century novel called Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barret Browing, that describes a man and his guide dog. Furthermore, Johann Whilhelm Klein founded an institute for the blind in Vienna, Austria, in 1819, and the first guide dog training school appeared in Germany, when Dr. Gerhard Stalling trained dogs to assist blind veterans during the World War I.
However, the earliest publication about the existence of such school dates back to 1927, after which the idea spread to the rest of the world. At the beginning of the 1930’s, assistance dogs were allowed to access public places and all kinds of transportation vehicles and the first associations were founded as well. Although, guide dogs were the first type of assistance dogs ever recorded, today’s diversity concerning tasks, needs and training made the latter’s division into more specified groups necessary.
According to Assistance Dogs International’s definition,
“Assistance dogs not only provide a specific service to their handlers, but also greatly enhance the quality of their lives with a new sense of freedom and independence.”
These animals must perform a task directly related to the disability of the handler in order to be considered an assistance dog. Amongst them, we can consider the assistance of blind, deaf, visual or hearing impaired individuals, as well as rescue work and the tasks of alerting handlers of allergens or seizures, of assisting people with psychiatric or neurological disabilities, of retrieving essential items, of pulling/hauling wheelchairs or of helping people of reduced mobility.
Even when some dogs are trained to perform more than one specific task, there are three different groups of assistance dogs according to their field of specialization:
Guide dogs assist blind or visually impaired people to bypass obstacles and ensure the safety of the team (handler-dog) along the way. The handler is responsible for imparting directions and the dog is in charge of ensuring the team’s arrival to their destination. The breeds most often trained as guide dogs are Labrador and Golden Retriever as well as German Shepherd. They are easy to recognize because they wear a harness with a U-shaped handle.
Hearing dogs alert deaf and hearing-impaired individuals of sounds such as alarms, doorbells, telephones, as well as of a baby’s cry, by touching their handler and leading him/her to the source of the sound. They usually are mixed breed and wear a vest as identification.
Service dogs assist individuals with disabilities other than visual and hearing impairment. These dogs are trained to help people suffering from mental illness, seizures, diabetes, autism, and other conditions that could be better managed with canine help.
Seizure and medical response dogs, which assist individual with high-risk medical conditions or autism as well as psychiatric service dogs and mobility assistance dogs follow training programs according to the task they need to perform. These dogs can be rescued from shelters or specially bred to enter the program. Golden and Labrador Retrievers are the most frequent breeds working as service dogs. They wear distinctive harnesses, backpacks or jackets, sometimes with an ID tag.
In all these cases, when an assistance dog is wearing a vest or any form of identification, it means that he is working and should not be distracted or disturbed. Assistance dogs are in general as affectionate and obedient pets when they are at home or not wearing their special gear, than when they are on duty.
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