Although a lot of people are unaware of it, this week, Aug. 3 to Aug. 9, is special for service dogs and the people who rely on them. It’s International Assistance Dog Week. It’s an honor that’s well-deserved, and we believe more people should know about the holiday as well as the animals themselves.
It used to be that service animals were mostly confined to a single function: seeing eye dogs. That’s far in the past now, and the breadth of services performed by dogs (and other animals) not only for people with visual disabilities, but disorders like autism, epilepsy, and diabetes, are truly incredible. To give you an idea of the scope of things that service dogs do, and just how much they do for the people they serve, we recommend that you take a look at some of the pieces we’ve published here in Dogster.
Peggy Speck’s account of her two-year-old Pomeranian, Jazzi, is an excellent demonstration of just how intelligent and helpful service dogs can be. We’re used to them being able to do simple tasks to help people with physical disabilities like blindness or paralysis. But Jazzi helps to tutor kids in reading:
I lay her blanket on the floor in front of the student, and then I sit in a chair, holding the leash. Jazzi sits on her blanket waiting for each student to come up and read. She listens patiently to every story. As a handler I often provide assistance with some of the words the students have difficulty pronouncing.
Jazzi is a therapy dog, which is one of the lesser-known kinds of service animal, but they’re rapidly becoming more popular. Dexter, an eight-year-old Boxer, is an excellent example of how valuable such animals can be. He was the first animal accepted into Boston Medical Center’s Healing Paws Program — just in time for the bombings at the Boston Marathon:
It was less than a week after Dexter’s first visit to the hospital when, shortly before 3 p.m. on April 15, two homemade pressure cooker bombs exploded near the Boston Marathon finish line, 10 seconds and a block apart. More than 260 spectators were hurt. The wounded were rushed to area hospitals, with 23 critically injured treated at Boston Medical Center. As the hours passed following the attack, distraught family members arrived to hold vigil in the waiting room. First thing the next morning, one of the hospital social workers called Hurley aside.
“She asked me if Dexter could come in just to sit with family members and loved ones. ‘There’s so much tension, that having a dog around will make the room seem lighter,'” Hurley recalls her telling him.
In times of disaster like the Boston bombing, service dogs can also be extremely valuable in search and rescue efforts. Hundreds of such dogs are trained by the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation, located in Ojai, California. The most heartening part of their program is that all of the dogs are rescues themselves, pulled out of shelters where they might otherwise linger for years or be euthanized:
They are adopted from shelters after medical checkups have shown them to be healthy and agile. “These are the kind of dogs that would otherwise get euthanized because no one can control them,” says SDF Community Relations Manager Celeste Matesevac. “They’re dogs who would be put on Ritalin if they were human. They have the highest energy, the highest toy drive. They’ll chew everything in the yard. They’re begging for a job, and they won’t calm down until they get a job. Once they’re taught to do this job, they’re the best you could ask for.”
The training for service dogs is rigorous and extensive, and can make them capable of amazing things. What’s really amazing though, is when they exceed the limits of their training, just because they have to. An excellent example is the case of Terry McGlade, whose service dog Major helps him during epileptic seizures. When McGlade had a seizure in his backyard, Major fished McGlade’s phone out of his pocket and stepped on the screen until it dialed 911 — something he’d never been taught to do.
Service dogs can also be excellent for children who are on the autism spectrum, who might otherwise hurt or endanger themselves. Autism Service Dogs of America, based in Portland Oregon, is one of the main sources for these dogs, which have been life-changers for families raising autistic children:
“Our service dog, Hope, has had a tremendous effect on our lives,” says Rhoni Golden, mother to an eight-year-old son with autism and author of the “Hope for Gray” blog. Before Hope, a black Labradoodle, joined their family, it was nearly impossible to go on outings as a family, she says. At restaurants, Gray would often get up, wander around, or take food off of other people’s plates. At parks, he would sometimes run off, and once he sat down in front of a moving car.
As a result, the family often had to assign a sibling to watch Gray or leave him home with a babysitter, she says. But Hope changed everything. “With Hope, he knows as long as he holds onto her handle, everything will be okay,” says Golden.
There’s much more to be said about service dogs than I can possibly cover here, or even that these few examples can cover. For a more in-depth look at service dogs and what they’re capable of, check out this piece by Marie-Claude Roy, and consider picking up her book Canine Angels.
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