Last week I attended a presentation by Kristen Hartness, Executive Director of the Canines for Disabled Kids about the transformative influence trained dogs can have on the lives of children and adults with disabilities. I also happened recently to have finished reading Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz which describes what we know about our canine friends and debunks many current myths about them.
Ms. Hartness, who runs a non-profit that provides information and referrals about obtaining service dogs as well as some financial support, explained that dogs can be trained to provide many types of assistance, including:
Turn lights on and off
Alert to oncoming seizures
Provide physical support
Dogs can be trained to provide only a single service. A seeing eye dog will not fetch.
She described how for children adult support can be isolating and the substitution of a dog can break down the barrier and allow them to find friends. She said that even for her, a very articulate adult who uses a walker, when she is out with her mother, people seem to talk to her mother. But when Ms. Hartness is on her own with her service dog, people interact with her.
Ms. Hartness described a boy with a new service dog trained to provide physical support, who reveled in being able to go to the bathroom at school on his own for the very first time as a teenager.
Golden and labrador retrievers are the most likely breeds to work out as service dogs, but not all of them can be trained for this role, and some dogs from other breeds work out as great service dogs.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service dogs may accompany their masters wherever they go, but schools are under no obligation to assist students with caring for their animals. As a results, children cannot take service dogs to school on their own until they are able to take care of them. Click here to read more about the ADA protections for service dogs.
Ms Hartness counseled that when service dogs are working they are totally focussed on the task at hand and should not be disturbed. Always ask the owner for permission before approaching a service animal.
The training of a service dog can cost $25,000. Canines for Disabled Kids provides financial assistance in some instances and can provide information on other sources of support, appropriate training programs for obtaining a dog, and other guidance as needed. It does not charge for its services, but welcomes contributions.
A service dog can make a huge difference in the life of a child (or adult) with disabilities. Go to www.caninesforkids.org for more information.