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How To: Choose A Service Dog

As published in Canadian Dogs Annual
How To: Choose A Service Dog

Melanie wanted to get a dog for her elderly father. Her mother had recently died and he was living alone. Arthritis limited his ability to get around without a cane, so she knew she had to choose a breed that wouldn’t mind going for short, leisurely walks rather than long hikes or romps in the park. She knew an energetic dog like a border collie or beagle wouldn’t be a good choice, and a rambunctious puppy would be too much for her dad to handle. She finally settled on a placid middle-aged Shih-tzu from the local shelter.

If you have a disability, or know someone who does, there’s a right dog for you too. People with disabilities often choose service dogs – animals that not only become beloved companions but are also trained to do a whole lot more. If you decide to adopt a dog from a local rescue or shelter, however, you need to do some thinking first.

Consider your needs
• Depending on the nature of your disability, you may or may not have limited mobility. If you do, you’ll want a dog that doesn’t need a lot of vigorous exercise to stay happy and well adjusted. Breeds such as collies, hounds and huskies probably aren’t the best choice. You might consider something like a Bichon frise, a dachshund, a Shih-tzu or a Boston terrier.

• Activity levels also depend on a dog’s age. Puppies are constantly on the go, but an older dog is quieter and more settled.

• Is the dog already trained? An animal that’s properly housetrained and knows basic obedience skills is an asset.

• A large dog might be better for someone who is visually impaired. It can be easy to trip over a small dog if you don’t see clearly.

• For people who can walk but have limited balance, there is one outstanding point to remember: even a small dog tugging on a leash can topple someone with restricted physical stability. To insure against falling, a person with partial equilibrium might be advised to adopt a dog with superior leash skills. Such a dog must likewise have no inclination to jump up on people. Again, good training is key.

• Dogs should be allowed outdoors three times a day to urinate and defecate. For people who are unsteady on their feet but have a fenced-in area attached to their home, there’s probably nothing to worry about. Physically unstable people who do not have such a space will need to arrange to have someone else take the dog out.

Service dogs play many roles
Unlike a dog adopted from your local shelter, all service dogs require extensive training so they can learn to independently perform their tasks. None of these dogs are trained by their human companions alone. They all attend intensive programs led by experienced trainers, and assist people with a wide range of disabilities. You must complete a training course with the dog and canine instructor. In all cases, you must be able to care for the dog’s daily needs.

• Hearing dogs tend to be small to medium-sized mixed breeds. In fact, canine training organizations often obtain their four-legged students from shelters. Hearing dogs recognize and alert their people to a variety of sounds including knocking or doorbells, smoke alarms and crying babies or children. Due to the nature of their work, these dogs must be energetic and ready to instantly respond to stimuli.

• By contrast, guide dogs for the blind are mostly purebred. While Labrador and golden retrievers are probably the most widely “hired” breeds, a number of training centers also prepare German shepherds and even standard poodles for this career. These breeds are largely chosen for their original functions of herding and retrieving. In today’s complex urban environment, however, these dogs are also singled out for their intelligence and steadfast ability to “disobey” an unsafe command. Medium to large dogs are usually chosen for the visually impaired – they’re easier for a blind person to harness and comfortably hold onto.

• Some dogs are trained to sniff the breath of people with Type 1 diabetes. Usually Labs, these natural breath analyzers are able to detect dangerously low sugar levels (hypoglycemia). To relieve the symptoms, they may carry bottled juice for their people. These dogs are placed with both adults and children over the age of 12.

• Other dogs learn to help people with epilepsy. If there is enough time before the onset of a seizure, the dog may bring water, medicine and/or a telephone to his person. If the seizure has already begun, the dog may bring pillows to cushion her head, thereby lowering the risk of injury. Some people maintain their dogs can actually sense when a seizure is about to take place. These dogs reportedly help them to a safe place (i.e. the floor), so they won’t be hurt by falling.

• Service dogs trained to work with mobility challenged individuals can help people who use crutches, canes, walkers and even wheelchairs. Dogs placed with people with degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s or ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) help to either balance or brace them, stabilizing them in both standing and sitting positions. These dogs may also help wheelchair-bound people transfer to or from their wheelchairs. For people with hand-operated wheelchairs, the dogs may assist in pulling the chair itself. To fulfill the demands of such mobility assistance jobs, however, neither a small nor medium-sized dog would be tall or strong enough.

• Specially trained canines are placed with individuals who have arthritis, CP (cerebral palsy), chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome, fibromyalgia, heart disease, MS (multiple sclerosis), muscular dystrophy, myasthenia gravis, paralysis and spina bifida. Dogs also assist people who have had spinal cord injuries or chronic back/neck problems and strokes. These dogs will:

} Pick up dropped objects
} Retrieve items from countertops or tables
} Carry groceries or other items in a doggie backpack
} Load or unload a washer or dryer
} Press pedestrian crossing buttons or elevator buttons
} Turn lights on or off
} Help with undressing (shoes, socks and jackets)

Whether you opt for a service dog, or adopt one from a shelter or rescue, there’s one more benefit he’ll offer you, regardless of his breed or job description – joie de vivre!

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