The amazing world of assistance animals
In the past twenty years, dogs have become increasingly recognised as useful companions for humans.
The original model - the traditional "Guide Dog for the Blind" - has been supplemented by a wide variety of so-called "assistance dogs". Here in Ireland, the key area of development was started by the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind in 2005, when they set up Europe's first Assistance Dogs Programme for families with children with autism.
The specially bred and trained dogs make a massive difference to the quality of life of their families. They carry out a multitude of small tasks, but there are two main areas where they excel. First, they act as an anchor if an autistic child bolts in public. Without a dog, there's a continual fear for parents that a child will randomly run off, with no awareness of traffic or other hazards. The child becomes accustomed to being linked to the dog by a harness, and if they ever try to run away, the dog is trained to lie down, without budging. This prevents the child from getting into a dangerous situation. The second major benefit of an Assistance Dog is that they become a long term, steady friend of the child. Dogs are completely non-judgemental, and for a child growing up in a frightening world, a dog provides a wonderful emotional anchor.
The Assistance Dog Programme has been so successful that Irish Guide Dogs can no longer keep up with the demand, and sadly, they have had to close their waiting list. They can only train thirty or forty dogs a year, yet if they were suddenly able to produce dogs for every autistic child who needs one, they would need to have five or six hundred dogs ready to go.
This massive demand has led to other groups also breeding and training Assistance Dogs: Dogs for the Disabled was founded in 2007, My Canine Companion started in 2011, and Autism Assistance Dogs has also now been established. The four charities have worked together to form a national umbrella group called "Irish Assistance Dogs", which aims to maintain the highest possible standards of breeding and training of Assistance Dogs. The group also works to highlight the need for special recognition for Assistance Dogs under Irish legislation to ensure that the families who have these dogs enjoy proper access rights to social amenities such as cinemas, restaurants, shops and other places.
In recent times, some desperate parents of autistic children have paid significant sums of money for dogs from un-affiliated organisations, and some have ended up being bitterly disappointed. If the word gets around that it's best to only work with members of Irish Assistance Dogs, such problems may be prevented in the future.
Although Assistance Dogs for children with autism is the biggest sector in Ireland, Dogs for the Disabled are also provided for people with a range of physical disabilities. Examples include people with Multiple Sclerosis, Cerebral Palsy, Muscular Dystrophy, Parkinson's Disease, Polio, Spina Bifida, arthritis, spinal injuries and amputees. Dogs are also used to help people who are deaf (they can let their owner know that the phone is ringing, or that there's someone at the door), and there are even medical assistance dogs now, doing tasks like predicting low blood glucose in diabetics or helping people who have epilepsy. There's far more availability of dogs to help people with these problems in other countries such as the UK and USA, and it's an area that's likely to continue to develop here.
The range of tasks that dogs can help people accomplish is remarkable. Here are the most common helpful activities: picking up dropped or difficult to reach items, opening doors, helping with the shopping, helping with dressing and removing items of clothing, loading and unloading a washing machine, pressing a pedestrian crossing or lift button, retrieving the telephone, post and medicine and retrieving money from a cash machine.
It's important that assistance dogs are allowed to accompany their owners as they go about their daily activities, and most businesses make exceptions for the "no dogs allowed" rule, with signs saying "Guide Dogs Only". A recent issue that has come up is that some people feel that their own pet dogs are such close companions that they ought to be allowed in as well. Such animals are sometimes called "Comfort Animals", and some businesses have started to allow these as well. In particular, airlines in the US have started to let Comfort Animals come aboard, sitting in a seat on the plane, to accompany nervous passengers. There is a basic rule that many different types of animals are acceptable, as long as they are 'trained to behave properly in public settings'.
A couple of years ago, one woman in the United States persuaded the airline staff to allow her Labrador-sized Pot Bellied Pig on board, but when the pig started to be "disruptive", she was forced to disembark. And last week, a photo in the papers showed a turkey sitting in an airline seat who apparently was offering emotional support to his companion.
Times have certainly moved on a long way from that traditional Guide Dog for the Blind!