This week is International Assistance Dog Week, a week dedicated to recognizing all the devoted, hardworking assistance dogs that help individuals mitigate their disability related limitations. The goal of the week is to: recognize and honor assistance dogs, raise awareness and educate the public about assistance dogs, honor puppy raisers and trainers, and recognize the heroic deeds performed by assistance dogs in our community.
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. Today there are three types of Assistance Dogs: guide dogs (for the blind and visually impaired), hearing dogs (for the deaf or hard of hearing), and service dogs (for people with disabilities other than those relating to vision or hearing).
Guide dogs assist blind and visually impaired people by: helping them avoid obstacles, stopping at curbs and steps, and negotiating traffic. The human communicates with the dog using directorial commands. The dogs are even trained to disobey a command if it proves to be unsafe. Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, and other large breeds are socialized and raised for over a year by volunteers. The dog is then trained for four to six months by professional trainers before being placed with their visually impaired handler. A guide dog can be identified by the U-shaped handle the handler holds on to.
Hearing dogs assist deaf and hard of hearing individuals by alerting them to a variety of household sounds such as: a door knock or doorbell, alarm clock, oven buzzer, telephone, crying baby, name call, or smoke alarm. When the dog hears the sound he will make physical contact with his handler and lead them to the source of the sound. Before the dog has formal audio response training, he or she will be raised and socialized by a volunteer. A hearing dog can be identified by a leash or vest.
Service dogs assist people who have a disability other than a visual or hearing impairment. With special training these dogs can help with many different types of disabilities. They can be trained to work with: people who use power or manual wheelchairs, have balance issues, have various types of autism, need seizure alert or response, need to be alerted to other medical issues like low blood sugar, or have psychiatric disabilities. These specially trained dogs assist their handlers by: retrieving objects that are out of reach, opening and closing doors, turning on and off light switches, barking to indicate that help is needed or finding another person and leading them to the handler, and many other individual tasks as needed by the specific person. Most service dogs are Golden Retrievers or Labrador Retrievers and are either rescued from animal shelters or bred in selective breeding programs and raised by volunteers before they enter formal training. You can identify a service dog by a jacket, backpack, or harness.
Please remember that if you see one of these dogs, you should not bother, distract, or pet them. They are working and need to stay focused on whatever tasks they are trained for. You should also not offer the dog any food before asking the handler for permission.
If you are need of an assistance dog, there are many organizations that can help you.