Assistance Dogs Changing Lives
Labrador Seeing Eye Dog
Most of us have marvelled at the skill of 'Seeing Eye' dogs. But dogs can also be trained to make a difference in the lives of those of us with physical and mental disabilities. These dogs are taught to respond somewhat instinctively, so enabling disabled people to live more independent lives.
'Jimmy' and Rob
A few months ago, an athletically built man in the prime of life, walked into my favourite coffee shop with a Labrador wearing a coat indicating it was an 'Assistance Dog'. As this man did not have any obvious physical disabilities, curiously I watched him take a seat on the lounge at the back of the shop. The dog immediately laid down between the man's legs, put his head on the man's leg and gazed lovingly into his eyes. As the man gently stroked the dog's head, I immediately saw the special connection between these two. I introduced myself and struck up a short conversation. The man, Rob, told me he was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and that was why he had this Assistance dog called 'Jimmy'. But that particular day I felt I had to respect Rob's privacy.
Rob and 'Jimmy' with recruit
Over several months, I saw the pair many times. Rob finally felt sufficiently comfortable to reveal details of the effects of his PTSD. Policing on an overseas peacekeeping mission combined with experiences during Black Saturday left Rob with constant nightmares and mood swings which sometimes drove him to the point of contemplating suicide. But Jimmy is trained to recognize these symptoms. Together with the love and placid nature typical of a Labrador, Jimmy knows just how to distract Rob and calm him down, so getting Rob through these tough episodes.
Over the years I have seen many trained Assistance Dogs. Some are taught to assist in taking socks or jackets off, open and shut doors or drawers, take clothes out of a washing machine, pick up items off the floor or the phone when it is ringing, push the button at pedestrian lights or turn on an especially designed light switch. But teaching a dog the triggers of recognising when a mental episode is about to happen, is quite different and requires specialised training. In this mental capacity, dogs are also being trained successfully to calm autistic children. Have you ever read the book 'A Friend Like Henry' by Naula Gardner about an autistic child and how his Golden Retriever changed his life? Additionally now there are programmes where dogs are trained to look after people with dementia.
Although some dogs are trained by organisations like 'Assistance Dogs Australia', others can be encouraged to act somewhat instinctively. I once met a dog named 'Lilla', a Boxer cross who was taught to reliably turn over her owner, Breanna whilst having an epileptic fit. This meant Breanna did not choke during an episode. This also meant Breanna's husband or mother did not have to be with her 24 hours a day.
Airedale with child
Years ago, before there were specialised programmes, I sold one of my Airedale pups to a severely autistic child who had never communicated by the age of six. But once the puppy arrived in the house, he immediately spoke to the pup, perceptively saying the word 'dog'. The pup immediately responded and was named 'dog' for the rest of its life. The child continued adding words, speaking to the dog with words like 'sit' and 'drop' which the dog learned to obey. So just one year after the Airedale came into his life, this child had developed sufficient vocabulary to communicate with his dog. One year later the child addressed his mother as 'Mum' for the first time.
From 1996, the organisation, 'Assistance Dogs Australia' has trained dogs to make a difference in the lives of people with all types of disabilities. In much the same way as Guide Dogs for the Blind, their potential assistance dogs are run with 'Puppy Educators' until 12 - 18 months of age. Some are run with inmates who are prisoners completing their sentence behind bars. This is a wonderful two-way programme. It gives suitable inmates a purpose for being pro-active in full knowledge that their 'charge' which they would have to give back, will make a difference in some disabled person's life. When returned to 'Assistance Dogs Australia', the pup's individual temperament is assessed and their training focused on the type assistance they will be required to do in future.
Many of us train our dogs for fun and competitions, especially in activities connected with our hobby. But did you realise how important our dogs could become if our mobility was compromised, we needed comforting, or had the misfortune of ill health? Little things, like encouraging dogs to have a cuddle when we are feeling low, or training them to pick up items accidentally dropped on the floor, could make a huge difference to our lives some day. With patience and encouragement, you may be surprised what good 'Assistance Dogs' the dogs we already own and love, could become!
References and Further Reading
Published in Dog News Australia as 'Assistance Dogs Changing Lives' (Top Dog Media Pty Ltd Austral NSW) Issue 12, 2016 Page 4
 'The Labrador Retriever in Australia' Produced by The Labrador Retriever Club of Victoria (Affiliated with the Kennel Control Council) Edited by Kevin Bowtell first Published 1961, Reprinted 1963. Frontis page.