Once upon a time, seeing-eye (guide) dogs were almost the only type of assistance dog around. Over the last few decades, the field has widened considerably.
Today, dogs help the hearing impaired, the blind, wheelchair bound and bedridden. Others simply provide a new kind of therapy for prisoners, burn victims, the clinically depressed or merely home bound.
Training starts before birth by careful selection. It’s no accident that certain breeds tend to be more useful for these roles than others. German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, and a few others are favored both for intelligence and temperament.
Even within breeds some individual dogs are more keen on training than others. They display not only the ability to perform a simple task on command, but a confidence and eagerness that’s essential to the job.
After a year of in-house training and bonding with a person who also receives special training, the dog ‘graduates’ to the next level. Then, depending on the intended role, they receive an additional two months to two years of intensive, specialized instruction.
Dogs in these programs learn everything from simple barking to alert the deaf to a door knock or telephone ring to fetching containers of food or drink, opening doors, and – of course – providing vision-information to the sightless.
A seeing-eye guide dog may lead their blind companion around obstacles on the street or at the mall. The hearing-guide dog may alert their friend to an oncoming fire truck. The wheelchair assistant may even help the occupant off the floor or into bed.
These special animals are trained to stay focused in crowds and deal with varying environments. Some go to urban areas where they’re used to see a curb as a boundary, others find homes in rural areas where they learn that turning on a garden hose is more important than chasing a fox from the property. Try teaching that to Chauncy the terrier some time! Possible, but not easy.
Besides the traditional sit, stay, come these working dogs must learn to jump on command to deliver a cup of water without spilling to a paraplegic. They turn on or off lights, change the volume on the stereo, and bring bags containing medicines. Some are even trained to recognize and react to heart attacks and strokes and call 911!
Learning such beyond-the-norm behaviors takes months of dedicated concentration by both trainer and dog. Patience beyond what most individuals possess is required to teach even the most willing students.
Dogs learn by cue and repetition. Though they can learn to recognize sounds and grasp simple meanings, they don’t possess even the three-year old humans understanding of language. Teaching them to associate the sound ‘water’ with ‘fetch me a cup’ is many times more difficult than for the average toddler.
Yet these amazing creatures, with the guidance of their talented and dedicated trainers, learn to carry out a range of behavior well beyond their peers. So, when you see one accompanying its partner, respect the sign they carry that says ‘Working. Please don’t distract’.
Just give a silent bow of admiration to these hard-working dogs and the dedicated people who train them.