My disability aid has a wet nose! Assistance dogs (known as service dogs in the United States) assist their person and make daily life easier. But they are so much more than just practical helpers. REHACARE.com spoke with two dog training centers and learned how much people with disabilities benefit from a canine companion in everyday life and discovered the type of training assistance dogs complete before they are matched with a person.
Anyone who has attended a REHACARE trade fair has likely met and seen them in action helping their humans: assistance dogs. It’s difficult to walk past them without cracking a smile – or without us marveling at the versatile services the four-legged partners provide. But not everyone is familiar with assistance dogs or has seen them in action. And that can be a problem that creates an obstacle for dog owners in daily life. It’s high time we take a closer look at these friendly helper animals and raise awareness of their importance.
What can assistance dogs be trained to do?
An assistance dog is a dog specifically trained to aid and perform work for a person with a disability. Enter Hazel. The black Labrador has lived with Nina Hoffmann for the past year. "She opens doors or cupboards for me or taps light switches and elevator buttons. Whenever I cannot do something on my own or an item falls to the floor, Hazel happily fetches or does it for me," says Hoffmann. The 36-year-old lives in Cologne, Germany and - together with Hazel – is the 64th human-dog team that VITA e.V. Assistenzhunde has successfully matched and brought together.
Mobility assistance dogs typically support wheelchair users and increase their independence in everyday life. The dog is an invaluable helper when it comes to picking up things, taking off clothes or loading and emptying the washing machine. Nina Hoffmann is physically impaired due to progressive muscular dystrophy. Hazel helps by pushing her arm back onto the wheelchair joystick if it slips off. "This is an invaluable support for me because I am unable to move and position my arms on my own. I would be completely helpless without her assistance." This is a task the dog was custom trained to do because it is extremely important for Nina. With the right training, assistance dogs can support any type of physical disability. That is why they are also called assistance dogs for the disabled.
With their "will to please", breeds such as Golden Retrievers, Labradors and Australian Sheperds are very well suited for a task as an assistance or service dog. But: Not all puppies become good assistants later on.
Due to the specialized nature of its work, an autism assistance dog or autism service dog is trained to assist a person on the autism spectrum to help him/her gain independence. The dog performs a wide variety of tasks that are not just therapeutic in nature. Seizure response dogs and guide dogs for the blind are yet other types of assistance dogs.
But why do dogs make such great service animals or why are they so well suited to do work or perform tasks for a person – take therapy dogs, for example? "It is because of their famous 'willingness to please', meaning they are eager to be with and help people," explains Tatjana Kreidler, Founder and CEO, VITA e.V. Assistenzhunde. Labradors tend to make great assistance dogs. VITA also likes to train Golden Retrievers. The fact that both breeds are innately "happy to work closely with their people" makes them a perfect fit for service and highly trainable. Their even temperament, loyalty, and willingness to work also makes Australian Shepherds excellent candidates for this type of job.
That being said, the retrieval of objects or using a paw to press a button are basically "tricks" most pet dogs can also be trained to do. So, what exactly makes an assistance dog so unique?
Ulrich Zander has always had a heart for animals. However, his trainer during his dog training license had the right "nose" with him and also saw his talent for training guide dogs for the blind. This is how Zander came to his current profession.
Special training to meet individualized needs
Apart from an even temperament and a calm natural disposition, training and instruction will prepare the dog for its future tasks. Ulrich Zander and his team are responsible for this at the WZ Hundezentrum (English: dog center). His own dogs prompted Zander to take up this career. At first, he owned his own pet store, then moved on to become a professional dog trainer, only to return to self-employment again. For the past seven years, the WZ Center has been training dogs at its facility.
Rare diseases show how special and unique this type of training can be. "If we have no experience with a specific clinical picture, we first look at the person’s medical report. We also learn more about the disease pattern to build a framework," says Zander. The team also includes family members because the goal is to identify all obstacles the person encounters in everyday life. This also helps to determine areas the dog can assist with or not. After all, an "assistance dog is not a panacea for every challenge a person might have to overcome," the trainer explains. Besides the support the assistance dog can offer once trained, Zander and his team must also determine whether the dog owner, the family or another related party can take proper care of the dog. "Once that has been established, we develop a training program. As a general rule, each dog is individually trained."
Tatjana Kreidler became aware of the organizations "Guide Dogs for the Blind" and "Dogs for the Disabled" in Great Britain in the course of her diploma thesis. After her studies in social pedagogy, she trained as a dog trainer.
This also applies to VITA e.V. Future assistance dogs will spend their puppyhood with so-called puppy raisers who will provide socialization experiences. That means they get the dog accustomed to everyday occurrences such as loud noises, other animals, car rides and other typical life events. Once they are about one year old, the four-legged friends return to VITA and - after completing basic obedience and advanced training - are trained to perform specific tasks at about two years of age. At this point, the future human partner is already involved in the training process to prepare the dog to meet his/her special needs. "From the get-go, VITA takes a sociotherapeutic approach, which focuses on building an intensive bond over a longer period. We also concentrate on periodic and equally intensive support and follow-up training for our VITA teams. Our association accompanies our teams for the dog’s entire life and beyond," Tatjana Kreidler explains the process.
That has also been the case with Nina Hoffmann and Hazel. The black Lab is not the 36-year-old's first assistance dog. After 14 happy years with her previous dog Emily, Hoffmann had to say goodbye to her trusted companion in the fall of 2019. "I knew right away that I can’t envision my life without an (assistance) dog," she says. Her first dog had also been trained by VITA. The organization now also found a second match with Hazel for the woman from Cologne.
Zander likewise cannot envision a life without dogs. He thoroughly enjoys working with the four-legged friends and their future owners. "The minds of assistance dog owners are like a sponge that soaks up huge amounts of information. Working with them is more fun than working as a dog trainer. It also makes working with the dog easier because it already received basic training, which you and the future owner can use as a foundation to build on." The WZ team handles the puppy socialization in-house and hence does not use volunteer puppy raisers.
Not all dogs are suitable for service dog work. That is why the Hundezentrum (dog center) also created the companion dog concept. The trainers used to get many inquiries from families who did not feel confident in raising a puppy themselves but still wanted to have a dog. "People would ask if we have dogs that are not suitable to become an assistance dog but have already completed the basic training, referring not just to obedience and behavior, but also in relation to knowledge and skills," the trainer explains. "The companion dog will likely not walk next to the wheelchair in the future but might end up walking next to the baby stroller, for example. As you can see, there are definitely parallel scenarios."
From puppy selection to basic training to the finished assistance dog - the training takes years and not all dogs are suitable for it or pass the test. Those that make it, however, are then an enrichment for their people and much more than just aids.
Who pays for or finances the cost of the dog?
Right now, you still have the right to train your own assistance dog in Germany and get a professional service dog trainer to support you in this task. If you feel unable to do this or lack the time to complete the required training, organizations such as VITA or the WZ Hundezentrum are a great first point of contact. "Our organization makes a four-legged partner available to people regardless of their financial situation," says Kreidel. The average cost for an assistance dog is 35,000 euros. German Health insurance covers the costs of guide dogs for the blind but does not cover the cost for service dogs.
"It’s a pity, because many scientific studies have shown that assistance dogs can have measurable positive effects," says Zander and adds, "Why does the San Francisco International Airport in the US have a therapy pig? Not because this is allowed in America", but because it has been scientifically proven humans release oxytocin when they pet an animal. Oxytocin has long been referred to as "the cuddle hormone," because we release it when we hug or touch our partner, child, or an animal. The San Francisco International Airport has an entire array of volunteer therapy animals including a pig, who all help relieve the stress and anxieties of passengers and make traveling a more enjoyable experience by calming the fear of flying. That’s because oxytocin is a happy hormone. And happiness is what people automatically experience when they meet an emotional support and therapy animal.
But not everyone has the money to train an assistance dog. While VITA e.V. can bear the costs of dog training and care thanks to financial assistance from foundations, endowments, sponsors, and donations, the WZ Hundezentrum helps people in their search for sponsors or donations. The Center has extensive experience in this area and provides several contacts. "That being said, self-financing has increased significantly in recent years," says Zander.
For Nina Hoffmann, Hazel is her personal Corona miracle: the dog came to her a year ago when, due to the pandemic, it was also not at all clear for a long time whether and how the reunion of the two could take place.
A priceless partner
"An assistance dog is ultimately more than just an assistant to a person with disabilities. It is also a friend, confidante and comfort and an icebreaker that helps form social connections," says Tatjana Kreidler. "It also opens doors – both literally and figuratively." Except that some doors remain closed despite the best efforts. While guide dogs for the blind are allowed any place a person can go, and German health insurance considers them an assistive technology and hence covers the cost, assistance dogs don’t enjoy the same recognition. However, a new Federal Law for the Participation of Disabled People aims to change this in the future. Read our article "Assistance dogs: four paws are the key to active participation" to find out about the new law and discover some of the social acceptance issues human-dog teams like Nina Hoffmann and Hazel experience in daily life.
People with disabilities are all too familiar with barriers. Still, the benefits of these animals far outweigh the barriers people encounter. For Nina, "Hazel is my personal coronavirus miracle, who helped me get through the difficult and challenging times of the pandemic. She assists me every day and is more than just a four-legged helper. She is my companion who accepts me for who I am and gives me confidence, hope and a sense of ease again and again." This also improves Nina’s self-determination. "Just by being there, Hazel gives me a sense of security and independence and allows me to have the confidence to venture outside for a walk without needing my third-party (human) assistant", says the woman, who now also receives non-invasive ventilation. The Labrador affords her owner the opportunity to participate. Apart from all other aspects animal helpers manage to support their person, this is certainly the most important task of all. And you can’t put a price on that. It is a priceless gift.
Anne Hofmann (Translated by Elena O'Meara) REHACARE.com