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Aide dogs

by Mary L. and Bo (service/guide dog)

I do not have the ability to roll over and right myself after a fall–heck, I can no longer roll over in bed! However, my dog is trained to roll me over and help me to right myself. Without him, I could never get off the floor!

Out and about, my dog is trained to look for curb cuts and lead me to them. If there are none, he picks up my foot and places it for me then allows me to use him for balance and extra pull to "uumpf" myself up the curb. This works on stairs also.

Away from home I use a wheelchair most of the time now. I no longer have the upper body strength to maneuver a wheelchair very far, but with my aide dog’s help–no problem.

I have two of them–Reggie is recently retired but continues to work at home. Bo takes over for him and is still learning all the jobs he will need to know to help me function in as near a normal way as possible.

Reggie is trained to do over 100 jobs to assist me. The usual opening up and closing of things (doors, cabinets, drawers, etc.), retrieves dropped objects and objects by name that I send him to retrieve, helps to "pick me up" when I drop, assists with transfers to and from (bed to chair, chair to standing, in and out of tub, etc.), can dress or undress me (no buttons, of course, but is a whiz at Velcro, elastic, or zippers with attached zipper pulls), carries what I need in a backpack, can pull a shopping cart, loves to "do" laundry (he assists with it, but thinks he’s capable of doing the whole thing himself), seizure and migraine alert and assistance, brings the telephone when it rings, etc. Almost impossible for me to list everything at once, suffice to say, that these dogs are ready to assist with whatever needs to be done.

I’ve been through the care taker problems both outside help and family. I’ve been through the stage of "Do we have to take Mom with us?"–"Well, if we leave right now, maybe we’ll be back before she knows we’re gone." Mean family? Nope, it’s just that with all my "stuff" to lug along it can take more time to get me in and out of the car than it takes to pick up a bag of nails at the hardware store.

The day I read a newspaper article that told the story of a woman who had with the help of trainers trained her own aide dog was the day my life turned around. I phoned these trainers the next day and Reggie and I were in class that weekend. Two years of intensive work, but it was worth it!

At the end of that time, I with others had founded the Northwest Aide Dog Foundation a non-profit corporation dedicated to the promotion of aide dog awareness. We work with radio, TV, and the print media to teach people about aide dogs assisting people with disabilities. I’ve spoken to groups as small as three and as many as five thousand. While the Foundation is located in the Pacific NW, I have educated people across the nation, Europe, even spent two and a half weeks in So. Africa working with the So. African Guide Dog Association’s new hearing and service dog center. (Yes, I traveled with no personal caretakers–just me and Reggie and the group we traveled with.)

Is an aide dog right for you?

Some tips to consider if an aide dog is for you. 1) Do you like dogs? (sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised the answers we get.) 2) Have you ever trained your pet dog? Or owned a dog? 3) Is your disease a disability under the ADA (Americans With Disabilities Act)? Having a disease doesn’t qualify you for an aide dog, having a legal disability does. 4) Here’s the real clincher!! Take your pet dog (assuming you have one, if not try borrowing one) and for the next two weeks tie the dog’s leash to your wrist. Yes, you and the dog will not be separated at all (except to leave the house because the dog isn’t yet an aide dog and won’t have the right of legal access). You will sleep with your arm hanging over the side of the bed, shower with that arm stuck out of the shower curtain, eat together, toilet together, etc.

If the thought of this much togetherness leaves you shaking your head, you’ve saved yourself and the poor dog a lot of hassle. If you would consider trying this, you might make it through school and have a dog placed with you. If you’re rushing for the leash and your dog, then you’re the type of person who will stick it out through thick and thin and benefit the most from an aide dog.

After you’ve considered these points, check out the library–there are many good books about aide dogs (check about guide, hearing, seizure alert/response, and service–they use many different names for the jobs these dogs do). Some of these books may be a bit simplistic, but they do cover some of the training that goes into the dog.

The aide dog works out best for the PWD [people with disabilities] when they have reached the stage of their disease/disability emotionally whereby they have accepted the fact that this is what they have, including the limitations whatever they may be, but are ready to go on from there and empower themselves to help themselves to achieve their goals even if the goal is only rolling over in bed without human assistance, or getting from one side of a room to the other.


There are many programs that train dogs for people with disabilities, but it is also possible to do the training yourself. The waiting list for a trained dog can be as long as eight to ten years so many, including myself, train our own. When I say train our own dogs, I do not mean that we do so without guidance and some assistance from trainers–the importance of basic and advanced obedience classes cannot be stressed too much–but the training to do the aide work required to assist us with disability can be taught by the handler.

Not everyone goes through all that is needed to have a dog trained to assist them at all times, i.e. away from home, but even if you don’t you, may be able to train the pet dog you already have to assist you at home with the things that drain you of energy you’d much rather spend elsewhere. Picking up dropped objects, helping you up after a fall, retrieving a portable phone when you need to call for help, etc. Being able to send your dog to "retrieve" a family member somewhere else in the house when you need help is useful. Being able to send your dog to "retrieve" a cell phone or cordless phone if you’ve fallen in the yard and actually hurt yourself to the point that you can’t get up could be a life saver.

Picking up dropped objects for you is one of the easiest things to teach a dog to do. After all, he does this every time he removes food from his own food dish–it’s a natural trait. Walking at our side and providing balance (depending on the size of the dog, there are harnesses available which could make this easier–the dog wears the harness) is very helpful and can make stairs a lot safer too.

What keeps a person with a pet from pretending that the dog is an aide dog? Behavior of the dog. The hours and years that go into the training of an aide dog can’t be faked, and it’s pretty easy to spot. The person who has to keep repeating commands is a give away as well as the dog’s behavior. Yes, we’ve on occasion found some cheaters but they don’t last–something about having to pay for the damage their dog does (peeing, pooping, knocking things off of shelves, excessive barking, jumping up on people, etc.) makes them realize that this isn’t fun and games.

Someone asked about how to teach a dog the word "phone". Let me try to explain how dogs think. When a dog "learns" a word it’s through word association. They will associate a word with a particular action because they are creatures of action (although they are capable of deep thought). The word "treat" carries the memory of something to eat and so easily becomes a part of their mental vocabulary. The word "phone" carries no meaning for your dog unless and until you give it meaning for him. If retrieval of the phone is something you want the dog to learn, that’s what you will work on. Make sure the phone is one your dog can safely bring to you–not one attached to the wall unless the cord is a long one!

For my dogs, I had a cordless phone the base unit of which is placed on the floor for ease of getting to (for the dog). You may need to tie something onto the phone to make it easier for the dog to carry depending upon the size of the dog’s mouth and how careful the dog is. You can pick up at second-hand stores old phones for your dog to practice on–if they drop it, it’s not a problem. You will be using treats to get the dog’s attention so have some at hand (the smaller the better, you want an attentive dog not a fat one). Using the treat to get your dog’s attention, have him follow you to the phone.

If you’ve never spent any time training him, you may need to give him a treat or two to keep him following you to the phone. Put on your best "happy voice" and use it to focus the dog’s attention to the phone. Something stupid like "Oh Boy (dog’s name) look, a phone! Let’s go see! Wow would you get a look at that!" The dumber you feel, I swear keeps your dogs attention the longest. You may luck out and your dog reaches out and sniffs or licks or (lucky you!) picks up the phone. Whatever he does be ready to treat it if he makes contact. If he doesn’t, place a treat on the phone and make sure he sees you do it. Trust me, he will go for the treat. This is a very good dog!! Has he picked up the phone yet? Probably not, but he has just associated the phone with a pleasant experience and is learning the word "phone" has a good association for him. You can practice this several times a day. It shouldn’t take long before your dog is willingly following you to the phone and making contact with it. The same process is used to teach your dog how to pick up the phone and how to bring it to you.

The books Teamwork I and II are very informative and available at bookstores and libraries. There are organizations which can help you train your dog, local trainers who could help you, organizations which train dogs for people with disabilities, etc. Teamwork: A Dog Training Manual for People with Physical Disabilities by Lydia Kelley, Stew Nordensson

What kind of dog?

Actually, it’s not the breed, sex, etc. of dog it’s whether or not that particular dog wants to do the job. While all dogs can be trained, not all dogs will work willingly day after day, and not all dogs can work through distractions. Out of approximately 200 puppies born and raised for this type of work maybe 20 will be placed with PWDs. The main reason is that organizations which train for you do not waste time working through problems encountered with a dog. Example: a dog that is nervous in elevators will flunk out of a program–a PWD training their own aide dog will take the extra effort to work through this problem and desensitize the dog to elevators. It may not always work out, but there’s a pretty good chance that it would.

Types of things to watch for: 1) pick a breed that has a background of working with man, not a fighting breed, or one bred just to look pretty. There are exceptions to every rule but for those who are training the first time this does make training easier. 2) consider fur length if grooming is a consideration for your disability–because aide dogs must be kept well groomed at all times. 3) drooling–some breeds are heavy droolers, and while many are chosen for aide dog work because of their size, you will have to be constantly on alert for head shaking–especially in restaurants. 4) size of dog–no dog is big enough to support the entire weight of a falling human, but height and weight of a dog is a consideration in helping to transfer you from chair to bed, or even helping you to stand up from a chair. Of most consideration is the bone structure of the dog and whether or not his hips and elbows can take the strain of the job. 5) please consider mixed breeds–the dog does not have to be a purebred (unless that is your choice) to do this job. There are many fine mixed breed dogs in shelters and you’d be surprised to learn how many fine aide dogs came from "throw away" backgrounds.

There is no set standard of tests that a dog "must" pass to be certified as an aide dog. In fact, except for organizations which train and place their own dogs there is no certification. Those organizations which say their dogs are certified have certified the dog themselves–and no governmental agency gave them the authority to do so or the training to do so. Since it is the disabled person partnered with the dog that is financially responsible for everything the dog does, (not the agency that trained the dog) certification means nothing, it’s just a tag that looks official. With the availability of computers, anyone could put together something that looks official.

How long does it take?

How long does it take to train–depends upon how much help you need. When I first started with Reggie, I needed help with picking up dropped objects, balance, going up and down stairs, and carrying items in a backpack for me. Seven months of intensive training–two hours a week with a trainer plus at home work. The addition of other basic jobs included five months of fine tune follow up. Realistically, one year of hard work will produce an aide dog team–you and your dog. Most of the rest you can easily do yourself without help.

Cost of training

Cost of training varies depending upon the trainer. I’ve paid seven dollars an hour for dog obedience classes in the past–currently I’m with a trainer who charges $95 for a six week, one hour a week course. She’ll also come out to your home to help with individualized training at $25 an hour. Dog obedience courses are located in many areas, parks departments (for basic obedience classes) are usually less expensive than professional trainers who have their own schools. You do, however, pay for what you get–if you’re not comfortable with that trainer or the trainer’s methods–move on!

If you were to pay someone to train the dog for you (I don’t mean the type of organizations which are non-profits and give you the dog–they have their own fund raising methods) the cost ranges from $5,000 to $25,000. For dogs such as Reggie and Bo which are trained for multiple disabilities the cost is around $75,000. Just another reason to do as much of the training yourself as you can–it’s cheaper!!

For additional information, contact the Northwest Aide Dog Foundation. NWADF has free brochures and newsletters available upon request. All services of the Foundation are free of charge: helping people with disabilities obtain aide dogs, educating the public about them, and helping with access problems that may be encountered when using an aide dog.

Here are some links for more information about service dogs:

Saturday, September 8th, 2012