New Mexico's Pet Resource WINTER 2005


PAWS - Abilities for Independence

by Jeanette Ashwood, Ed.D.

You may have seen a service dog with his/her person sometime, but do you know what a critical role these dogs perform for people with disabilities? Their role is so vital that the dogs you see are the best of the best. Their training is nothing short of miraculous. Each is highly trained to assist with the daily needs of the particular individual they serve. So what do they do? They provide their person with the help needed for the person to live a full, productive and independent life.

I say this with conviction because my service dog, a beautiful yellow Labrador retriever named Kayleah, does just that. We are a team; together we have overcome many of the obstacles posed by multiple sclerosis. Kayleah has a wonderful personality: an innate ability to know how I’m feeling at all times; loves people; is a natural canine comedian; is full of love and devotion; is very intelligent; and, has an unending desire to please. She is my most trusted friend, helping me emotionally and physically.

Emotionally, she is quick to give empathy and love when I’m fatigued; does funny antics to make me laugh; and is a cheerleader/motivator to let me know that together we can “lick” anything that comes our way.

Physically, Kayleah:

§ opens/closes doors and drawers

§ turns on/off lights

§ picks up objects on the floor

§ puts toys in the toy box

§ closes the dishwasher

§ goes for help when necessary

§ provides balance

§ takes messages to/from my husband

§ pushes the handicapped entry buttons

§ takes dirty clothes to the washer

Kayleah is also a certified therapy dog; we visit private residences, nursing homes, schools, and community programs for handicapped young adults. She gives freely of her love and provides therapy to increase range of motion, extension/flexion, etc.

How does one thank a dog that so willingly gives of him/herself daily to enable a disabled person the opportunity to have a full, independent life? Perhaps by returning their devotion, informing others who they are, what they do and of their paramount importance.

Service animals are a healthcare option that many individuals choose to help them overcome the limitations imposed by disabilities. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA, 1990), a dog is considered a “service dog” if it has been “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability.” Dogs trained to assist with their owners’ needs can provide the physical and/or psychological support necessary to enable the person to regain functional independence. Scientific research is validating the role of service dogs for people with disabilities. A two-year study done in 1995 by Karen Allen, found that people with disabilities who had service dogs scored higher for psychological well being, self-esteem, community integration, and the amount of control they could exert over their environment. Also, the number of human personal assistant hours required for care decreased by an average of 78%. This not only represents significant potential savings in the costs of health care; it gives people the opportunity to live their lives with as much independence and freedom as possible. Other research substantiates these findings and documents more benefits of service and companion dogs, including:

§ lower blood pressure

§ decreased stress

§ increased motivation

§ decreased serum cholesterol

§ mitigation of the effects of loneliness

Service dogs are versatile, reliable assistants for people with disabilities. They perform a wide variety of tasks that intervene for an equally wide assortment of limitations. Some of the tasks service dogs can be trained to perform include:

1. Guiding a person with visual impairments around obstacles, across streets and to destinations (to seating, to/through doors, to/into elevators, to work, etc.).

2. Discriminating sounds to alert a person with a hearing impairment to the presence of specific sounds (smoke/fire/clock alarms, telephone, baby crying, sirens, another person, timers buzzing, doorbell or unusual sounds, such as “things that go bump in the night”).

3. General assistance

a. mobility - balance; pulling a wheelchair; helping a person rise from a sitting or fallen position.

b. retrieval - picking up dropped items; carrying items by mouth; pulling up sheets on bed.

c. miscellaneous - open/close doors and drawers; help people dress/undress; carry items in backpack; put clothes in/out of washer/dryer.

4. Sense and alert owners to oncoming seizures allowing them time to position themselves safely.

The numerous tasks performed by service dogs empower disabled individuals to conserve energy, reduce or avoid pain, prevent injuries, get help in a crisis, and minimize dependency on loved ones or healthcare and daily living assistants.

Service dogs are working dogs, not pets. Therefore, service dogs are generally allowed anywhere that is open to the general public. The ADA protects the rights of a disabled person accompanied by a service dog; it grants them equal access to goods and services that are available to the general public. Privately owned businesses that serve the public (such as restaurants, (h)motels, retail stores, health clubs, theaters and other places of resort and amusement, and public transportation), must modify their “no pets” policies to permit the access of a service animal for a person with a disability. Public establishments are not obligated to provide for the care and well being of the animal while it is on the premises. Legally, a service animal cannot be required to wear equipment or special identifying vests or tags. The ADA also prohibits places of public accommodation from requiring proof or certification of the service animal’s training. Some disabilities are not readily visible. If it is uncertain whether a person has a service dog or pet, the person may be asked if it is a service animal required because of a disability and if so, what tasks the animal performs. The person cannot be asked the nature of the disability! The dog’s owner is responsible for its behavior. A disabled person may not be asked to remove the animal from the premises unless: (1) the animal is out of control and its owner fails to control it or (2) the animal poses a direct threat to the safety of others (sterile areas). Violators of the ADA can be required to pay monetary damages and penalties.

 Jeanette Ashwood, a retired university professor of medical and biological sciences, is a certified tester and handler of therapy dogs with special interests in service dogs, dog therapy, and educating people about canine issues.

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