Service and assistance dogs work hard, help people lead fulfilling lives.

It’s International Assistance Dog Week – a time to recognize and honor all of the hardworking, specially trained animals that aide so many people in our communities!  Assistance Dogs are very special companions, helping to transform the lives of their human partners with physical and mental disabilities.

While most of us are familiar with guide dogs that aide the visually impaired, there are many other types of assistance and service dogs helping people lead active and fulfilling lives.  Below is a breakdown of the types of service work dogs can perform: (Information via assistancedogweek.org)

Guide Dogs: Assist people with vision loss, leading these individuals around physical obstacles and to destinations such as seating, crossing streets, entering and exiting doorways, elevators, and stairways.

Service Dogs: Assist people with walking, balance, dressing, getting from place to place, retrieving and carrying items, opening doors and drawers, pushing buttons, pulling wheelchairs, and aiding with household chores, such as putting clothes in a washer and dryer.

Hearing Alert Dogs: Alert people with a hearing loss to the presence of special sounds such as a ringing doorbell, telephone, crying babies, sirens, another person, smoke alarms, knocks on the door, etc.

Seizure Alert and Response Dogs: Respond and help people who have epilepsy or a seizure-related disorder.

Medical Alert and Response Dogs: Alert or respond to medical conditions such as heart attacks, stroke, diabetes, panic attacks, anxiety attacks, and post-traumatic stress disorders.

And don’t forget about showing proper etiquette around a handler and their service dog.  These animals are truly amazing and spark much curiosity, but it’s best to show restraint and respect around the handler/dog team.  The image below outlines some basic service dog etiquette rules to live by.

Service dogs keep

By observing these  simple rules of service dog etiquette, you are respecting the handler and allowing the dog to best perform their job of keeping their handler safe.

Therapy Dogs

Another very important group of assistance dogs are therapy dogs. While service dogs are defined as “working dogs” by the American with Disabilities Act and are specifically trained to perform certain tasks for those with a disability, therapy dogs have a different role. Therapy dogs provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, nursing homes and hospice care, retirement homes, schools, disaster areas, and to people with learning disabilities or those in stressful situations.  Therapy dogs are usually trained or certified in a particular area, but in general must have a calm and good-natured temperament.  As stated on Canines 4 Hope’s website, “therapy dogs are friendly, patient, confident, gentle, and at ease in all situations.  Therapy dogs much enjoy human contact and be content to be petted and handled, sometimes clumsily.”

Therapy dogs are pets and work with their owner as a team as volunteers in these settings.  According to the animal therapy program, Pet Partners, interactions with therapy animal teams (owner and pet) has been shown to decrease perception of pain, lower blood pressure, promote care compliance, and minimize anxiety of recipients.

One of our patients also does therapy work as a certified educational assistance dog.  Jack, a six year old Yellow Lab, and his mom Eileen are part of the paws4reading program through the paws4people Foundation.  Paws4reading works to improve the literacy skills of children through the assistance of registered animal teams as literacy mentors.  On the last Sunday of every month, Jack and Eileen spend an afternoon at a Loudoun County library reading with children. During the school year, they are a part of an afterschool paws4reading program at Horizon Elementary School in Sterling.  Eileen originally heard about the program from a colleague and decided to get involved because it combined her love for dogs with her love of being a reading teacher.  As Eileen can attest, Jack enjoys his time with the kids as well.  “Jack will sit or lay down to listen to children read books to him.  They sometimes snuggle up and pet him while they are reading. The kids enjoy it because they can read to dogs even if they aren’t comfortable reading aloud – the dogs won’t judge their ability and it builds their self-confidence.  Some kids that come don’t have dogs at home and parents often say that it helps these kids not be afraid around dogs as well.”

Jack is a 6 year old Yellow Lab and one of our patients.  Jack is a certified Education Assistance Dog.  Image source: Eileen Ginty

Jack is a 6 year old Yellow Lab and one of our patients. Jack is a certified Education Assistance Dog. Image source: Eileen Ginty

The paws4people Foundation is unique in that it was started in Loudoun County in 1999 by twelve year old local resident, Kyria Henry, with the purpose of using dogs as a means of helping people.  During middle school, high school and college, Kyria worked with her certified Therapeutic Facility and Educational Facility Dogs in nursing homes, hospitals, and special education classrooms.  Currently, the Foundation operates in 16 states with more than 200 volunteers, and over 300 highly trained Assistance Dogs.  These dogs provide support in areas such as mobility and psychiatric service, educational and rehabilitative assistance, and social therapy.  Paws4people is now based in Wilmington, NC, where Kiera is the Program Director of the University of North Carolina Wilmington Assistance Dog Training Program.  To learn more about this great program visit paws4people.org.

Jack and his mom Eileen spend time reading with kids at local Loudoun County libraries and at Horizon Elementary School in Sterling, VA.

Jack and his mom Eileen spend time reading with kids at local Loudoun County libraries and at Horizon Elementary School in Sterling, VA.

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