Assistance: "A dog does not judge and takes people as they are"
Assistance: "A dog does not judge and takes people as they are"
Dogs are man’s best friend. VITA assistance dogs are even more than that: they are partners for (canine) life. Whether it’s emptying the washing machine or helping with social contacts – they assist wherever they can. And they do so unconditionally. At REHACARE.de, Dr. Ariane Volpert, veterinarian and vice chairperson of VITA e.V. Assistenzhunde, talks about the superior dog training and the stories behind it all.
Dr. Volpert, after completing her education in Great Britain, Tatjana Kreidler founded the VITA e.V. Assistenzhunde association. Great Britain is the pioneer when it comes to training assistance dogs. She subsequently developed a new teaching method. What makes the Kreidler method so special?
Ariane Volpert: This method focuses primarily on sensitizing a dog to humans and humans to dogs so that they share life as partners after the training is completed. Terms such as friendly authority, affectionate consequences, positive reinforcement, fairness, trust and patience are important.
What’s more, as the first person in continental Europe, Tatjana Kreidler assembled teams of children. Even in Great Britain, back then experts were skeptical whether a child should assume responsibility for a dog. However, Kreidler has shown that a child can assume the level of responsibility that correlates to its developmental stage. A parent needs to assume the rest while the child continues to take on more and more responsibility over time. At this point, we have successfully trained 22 teams of children.
How long does the assistance dog training take and which stages does it include?
Volpert: We already start coaching the dogs when they are puppies. At six weeks, we assess the disposition and health of the animals in terms of their aptitude to become an assistance dog. At eight weeks of age, we bring the selected puppies to the training center. After another two weeks, the puppies are then presented to a foster parent. Foster parents can be individuals, families or couples where the dogs stay until they are approximately one-and-a-half years of age. We coach and assist this team – foster parent and puppy – during the training. At least once a week, they receive lessons at our facility. We stay in close contact the entire time and prepare the dogs along with the foster parent for his/her big task. Initially, the focus is primarily on socializing in everyday life and creating a bond, relationship and trust with the human being. The dog subsequently returns to the training center, where the basic training is reinforced for another six months. This includes obedience aspects such as training to heel, sit or performing special tasks such as pushing or pulling – everything the dog needs later in everyday life to be of assistance.
This is followed by advanced training including wheelchair assistance, sensitive, gentle walking next to the wheelchair. Here the dog encounters various wheelchairs, scooters or crutches. When the dog is approximately two years old, we conduct the so-called matching – applicants and dogs meet each other. We observe how the dogs respond to the respective applicants and how they get along. If the chemistry is right, it is a match. Along with the applicant, we reach a decision depending on what he/she needs. This is subsequently followed by a special six-month training geared towards the applicant’s personal needs. It is essential that the bond between the two partners grows which is why we are delighted when the applicants visit our training center often. This is followed by a six to eight-week intensive get-together of human being and dog here at our center. The human partner learns the daily interaction with his/her assistance dog; during the first weeks, the focus is on bonding, relationship building and trust. Finally, we accompany the team once again for a few days in their everyday life at home together. Intensive follow-up care lasting three to four days up to four times per year subsequently takes place during the entire life of the dog.
What challenges do you face in training teams of children?
Volpert: Sometimes a child has been spoiled by its parents and siblings due to its disability. For a child that is always the center of attention, consideration and responsibility often take a backseat. Frequently, children also still need to learn how to use a wheelchair on their own since family members frequently push the wheelchairs for them. At VITA, the children initially meet other teams of children with similar disabilities. Through the dog, they learn to be considerate of others, pay attention to the dog and be patient with him. The dogs don’t need to listen the first time you say, “Sit“. An appreciation of the interaction between person and assistance dog is far more important to us.
VITA e.V. Assistenzhunde is a member of the Assistance Dogs Europe (ADEu) association, which means that the dogs are trained in their clubs based on internationally accepted quality standards.
Volpert: ADEu is an umbrella organization that unites nonprofit organizations that train assistance dogs for persons with disabilities. Since 2007, we are a certified regular ADEu member. You need to meet many criteria that are being tested based on strict regulations. The ADEu sets high-quality standards in training people and dogs, monitors the use of raised funds and pays special attention to animal welfare.
What makes the VITA e.V. Assistenzhunde association special?
Volpert: I believe this provides the best example of this: the little girl Frieda was very afraid of dogs to where she didn’t even allow her mom to visit our booth at the REHACARE in the past. Now she is already a teenager, surrounds herself with 20 dogs at a time without hesitation, gives younger VITA children teams tips and assists in handling their dogs. The fact that children assume tasks and responsibility, confide in each other and compare notes is what makes VITA so special. This does not just pertain to the handling of the dog but also to questions such as how to use a wheelchair, how to get up a hill with your wheelchair and how to take corners. Children with walkers engage in competitions to find out who can stand up longer without using their walkers. Our assistance dogs achieve this beautiful ambiance, create the incentive and the feeling of togetherness.