Therapy, guide and assistance dogs

Dogs helping people lead independent lives


Dogs help people keep in touch with reality and lead independent lives By Norma Bennett Woolf

Dogs are human partners in a variety of careers and hobbies, but none are more incredible or noteworthy than the relationships built between handicapped or ailing people and canine helpers.

There are several categories of helping dogs:

Therapy dogs

A dog that is healthy, sweet-tempered, and steady can become a therapy dog if it passes the evaluation required by a particular program. The dogs must respond to hugs and caresses from strangers and not be spooked by clanging bedpans, wheelchairs, odd-looking medical apparatus, hospital smells, or the quick and erratic movements of some elderly patients.

Therapy dogs generally wear an identifying jacket to mark them as special and to minimize the potential for shedding while in the facility. They may visit one or two sites on a regular schedule or work with a service organization to go where they are needed. Hospitals may certify their own therapy dog squadron or make arrangements with a mental health agency or a therapy dog group.

Any dog owner who wants to participate in therapy work should consider his dog’s temperament (Is he too boisterous for old people? Is he distrustful of children?) before signing up. Owners should also be aware of the potential for liability and should choose a therapy program that has a thorough evaluation process and is well aware of legal responsibilities.

National therapy groups include Therapy Dogs International and Pets Helping People.

Live-in therapy dogs

The Eden Alternative is a national program devoted to placing animals in senior housing complexes. Staffs at several Ohio facilities have joined the program and are in various stages of training or are using pets. The value of living with an animal is obvious to anyone who owns a pet: a reason to get up in the morning, acceptance of any and all human foibles, a need to be needed, a source of exercise – all contribute to mental and physical well-being. Many of the dogs chosen for the program are rescued from animal shelters or adopted from rescue groups.

Another version of live-in therapy places shelter dogs in prisons where inmates care for and train them so they can be adopted. Warren County Correctional Institute participates in a dogs-in-prison program with the Humane Association of Warren County.

Assistance dogs

Assistance dogs are generally evaluated and trained by professionals. They may be bred specifically for the job, donated by private breeders or owners, or rescued from shelters or purebred rescue groups.

These dogs receive training to meet the specific needs of their owners. Signal dogs are taught to respond to sign language and to alert owners to a ringing telephone or doorbell, a dripping faucet, a crying baby, and other sounds. Assistance dogs learn a range of chores from opening doors and picking up objects to guiding wheelchairs and fetching items.

Assistance dogs are allowed into businesses under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.*

Assistance dog training organizations are springing up all over the country. Unfortunately, some of these groups are unscrupulous or ineffective. Before choosing a group to work with, a potential client should seek references to find out if other owners are pleased with the dog and the follow-up services offered by the group.

Paws With A Cause and Canine Companions for Independence are two national organizations that place dogs with handicapped owners.

The Seeing Eye Inc. of Morristown, New Jersey, [(973) 539-4425; is one of the oldest training schools for guide dogs. Pilot Dogs in Columbus ([614] 221-6367; breeds and trains dogs for blind owners. Guide Dogs for the Blind in California can be found at (800) 295-4050 or and Leader Dogs for the Blind in Michigan can be reached at (888)777-5332.

Service dogs are allowed in businesses

Under the Americans for Disabilities Act, a federal law that provides public access and job protection to handicapped people, service dogs of all types must be allowed in public buildings and conveyances, including taxicabs, buses, theaters, and restaurants.

The ADA defines a service animal as any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability. If they meet this definition, animals are considered service animals under the ADA regardless of whether they have been licensed or certified by a state or local government.

Service dogs can be excluded from a business only if they annoy other customers or are aggressive. Even local health codes regarding animals in restaurants cannot be used to exclude a service dog.

Service dog owners do not have to prove that they need the dog for assistance or that the dog has been professionally trained or certified.

For more information, call the US Department of Justice’s toll-free ADA Information Line at (800) 514-0301 (voice) or (800) 514-0383 (TDD).

Norma Bennett Woolf

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