Our first real experience with an assistance dog was at a children’s hospital when Chloe was staying there for a few days. Elliott, a big black labradoodle, came to see her several times and she just loved having him as a visitor and getting to pet his soft, curly hair. Elliott’s handler gave me some information on assistance dogs and I started gathering information.
There are several types of assistance dogs: guide, hearing, service, seizure response, and emotional support (therapy). I’m going to highlight a few types that I think might apply to most readers on this site.
For Chloe, I decided to look into a service dog, which would primarily provide physical or mobility assistance. Service dogs can be trained to do different things for children with special needs like picking up and/or carrying items they might need, turning on lights, etc. Companionship, comfort, and increased self confidence are major bonuses, but not their primary purpose during training. Assistance dogs are typically trained and certified by an organization and are legally allowed full public access under ADA regulations. This would include school, doctor’s offices, hospitals, shopping centers, etc. Many service dogs are Labradors, Golden Retrievers, or Labradoodles (for those with allergies). In order to be allowed full public access, the dog must wear a special vest and be accompanied by the child they have been trained to serve.
Therapy dogs are typically put through obedience training and provide companionship/comfort, but are not trained on any specific tasks for the child. Therapy dogs are not given public access rights like service dogs, but can still be with the child anywhere you would typically take a dog (i.e. the park).
Seizure Response Dogs
Seizure response dogs can assist children with epileptic conditions. They are trained to respond after a child has a seizure, such as laying down by the child for comfort, alerting another person, or pressing a medic alert button. There is some evidence that dogs can sometimes sense before a child has a seizure. However, this is not proven and most information indicates this is something a dog learns after bonding with a child and coming to know them very well. It is believed, though not proven, that when this happens, the dog is reacting to a specific smell.
Companion dogs are really just…dogs. They do not fall in any true service dog category. Basically, this is your average family pet with no specific training or certification. They do not have public access rights. As anyone who has ever loved a pet knows, it doesn’t take fancy training or certification for most dogs to provide comfort, companionship, and endless hours of sensory input available via petting, licking, jumping, etc., etc.
Chloe did go through the in depth application process through one organization and was selected as a qualifying applicant for a service dog. However, because of the lengthy wait list (2-5 years) as well as relatively demanding (in my opinion) training requirements (the person interviewing us said most people compare the needs of a service dog to the needs of a toddler with extensive exercise, feeding, grooming, and medical care required), we ultimately decided to not pursue this avenue. Chloe doesn’t have the fine motor skills at this time to queue the dog to any of her specific wants or needs. So for us, I realized what Chloe would really benefit from would simply be the comfort, companionship, and sensory input that a companion dog could provide. Since we know the Havanese breed from being around my parent’s dog, like their size, temperament, and that they don’t shed, that is the type of dog we decided to go with. Tuxedo (“Tux”) joined our family last summer as a puppy and we cannot imagine life without him.
He truly does provide that companionship I was seeking for Chloe. And even though he’s still very much a puppy, when she is crying or sick, he softly lays by her and it makes my heart at least double in size! I haven’t completely ruled out the idea of a service dog for Chloe….someday, maybe. For now, though, Tux is the perfect fit for our family. He’s also a great friend to our 1-year-old, especially since they are about the same size!
For some lists of organizations that train/provide service dogs, check out this page or this page. The organization I am most familiar with is Canine Assistants. I know several people who have service dogs through them and have heard only good things. (Chloe’s furry friend, Elliott, is a Canine Assistant dog!)
Photo credit: freedigitalphotos.net.