They pick up items, warn about dangerous situations or safely guide a person through traffic – assistance dogs for persons with various disabilities have many different duties and responsibilities.
Guide dogs for the blind are perhaps the most well known among animal helpers for people with disabilities. Yet the spectrum is significantly broader than most people even realize. What’s more, initially a fundamental decision needs to be made, namely choosing between an assistance and therapy dog.
"An assistance dog is specifically trained for one person who is responsible for the dog and for whom the dog provides functional as well as emotional support. Functional because the dog opens doors, drawers and cupboards or moves paralyzed parts of the body into the right position if needed," explains Dr. Ariane Volpert, Veterinarian and Vice Chairperson of VITA Assistenzhunde e.V. (English: assistance dogs). "The dog assists in obtaining more quality of life and providing independence and autonomy in everyday life. It also opens doors in a metaphorical sense: the dog is a social mediator and removes its master from isolation. At the same time, it is also a therapy dog by just being there – thanks to petting, cuddling and the 'I am here for you' feeling."
Assistance dogs subsequently include all dogs that assist people with physical disabilities in a specific way. Aside from the well-known guide dogs for the blind, however, there are also other four-legged helpers. "Hearing dogs for hearing-impaired or deaf persons, for instance, alert to sounds such as a knock on the door or a baby’s cry. There are also so-called signal dogs that recognize early signs of possible seizures or impending hypoglycemia in diabetics," explains Volpert. "A combination of several types of training is also possible. After all, a person in a wheelchair who is physically disabled could be a diabetic at the same time."
While assistance dogs are individually responsible for a specific person, a therapy dog supports "trained therapists such as physicians, speech therapists or nursing staff in group or individual therapy sessions. This could be during counseling sessions or by assisting senior citizens and dementia patients for instance."
Whether it’s a young or older person – the mere presence, as well as the undivided attention of a dog, can be good for a person even in difficult situations. It is no surprise that therapy dogs are also increasingly being used in hospice care. Here their job is – among others – to bring joy but also to offer comfort. If needed, the therapeutically trained human-dog team also provides closeness and security – the therapy dog is occasionally allowed to get into a person’s bed if the person has a difficult time or is no longer able to get up for example.
The effect of therapy and assistance dogs on a person’s psyche should not be underestimated. This is why they are also increasingly utilized for persons with so-called mental disabilities. These disabilities are generally not visible at first glance since they are primarily hidden in the psyche of the affected person.
Kerstin Blume* lives with so-called dissociative identity disorder for example after suffering traumatic violent events during her childhood. In an interview at REHACARE.de, she explains how her assistance dog Ette supports her in many different ways – whether that’s in public or when dealing with other people or coping with her past.
Man’s best friend
Whether it is a hypo alert dog, signal dog or another faithful companion – the range of applications for animals varies as much as the people they serve. What is most important is that the needs of both parties are being considered in these human-dog teams. Only then, do both people and dogs enjoy their daily lives together and become an unbeatable team.