Photo courtesy of riekhavoc/Flickr.com
While guide dogs, like those trained at Guide Dogs of America, provide an invaluable service to their human companions, the ability of dogs to assist humans goes far beyond that of working with visually impaired people.

Dogs can be trained to provide a wide variety of life-enhancing, and sometimes, life-saving skills.    

A service dog, as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act, is “a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.”  Common service dog tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, retrieving items for those with mobility issues, alerting a person having seizure, or providing psychiatric support for conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

The benefits of service dogs have been well documented via scientific research. A study published in the September 2011 issue of the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology (say that three times, fast!), found a significant decrease in morning cortisol levels of children with autism spectrum disorders when paired with a service dog. Similarly, a Journal of the American Medical Association study measuring the value of service dogs for people with ambulatory disabilities found that participants "showed substantial improvements in self-esteem, internal locus of control, and psychological well-being within six months after receiving their service dog."

Most recently, psychiatric assistance dogs have been getting attention as soldiers return from Iraq not only with physical disabilities but, often, battling post-traumatic stress disorder. Organizations like Patriot Paws in Rockwall, Tx., and Veterans Moving Forward in Catharpin, Va., raise, train and provide dogs to veterans at no cost. In addition to traditional mobility-related tasks, the dogs are trained to help recognize and avert post-traumatic stress disorder episodes. According to Patriot Paws trainer Bonnie Hoard, the demand is so great that there is a current shortage of service dogs trained specifically for veterans.

Therapy dogs also provide a wonderful service to the community, but work in a volunteer capacity and are not considered service dogs, nor afforded special access under the Americans with Disabilities Act. According to the Delta Society, an organization that registers and insures volunteer therapy dog teams, therapy dogs and their handlers “are trained to provide specific human populations with appropriate contact with animals.” Therapy dogs are generally the personal pets of volunteer handlers, and training is limited to that which helps the dog behave appropriately while out in public amid various distractions and when interacting with a wide variety of people. 

Therapy dog teams visit hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities where residents and patients might enjoy interacting with an animal. As a former therapy dog team in partnership with my Whippet, Zoie, I can personally attest to a dog's ability to brighten a patient or resident’s day.

Regardless of the task performed, it's easy to see why, for many people, dogs really are man's best friend.

Photo by Stephanie Colman
Feb. 4 was an afternoon of hugs, tears and final words of wisdom as the adoptive parents of 36 future guide dog hopefuls delivered their four-legged “children” to the Guide Dogs of America (GDA) campus in Sylmar, Calif., for formal training.

To ease the sting of saying “goodbye and good luck” to a cherished family member, the organization hosted a special luncheon to honor those who have spent the past 18 months raising and caring for dogs with big future career plans. 

“You can call anytime to check on your dog,” said Louise Henderson, manager of GDA’s puppy department. She’s hosted dozens these events and understands the sea of emotion her audience is experiencing. “This day is harder on you than it is on them,” she added, hoping to ease their minds and hearts as they prepared to walk their dogs to the nearby kennel facility.

Puppy raisers play a critical role in the development of a guide dog.  Volunteers are entrusted with a bundle of puppy love when the pups are just 8-weeks-old. A puppy raiser’s job is to teach basic obedience and, more importantly, provide extensive socialization by exposing the pup to all sorts of sights, sounds, smells, surfaces, people, places and things. Guide dogs, and pups in training, are afforded special privileges under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which allows puppy raisers to legally bring their trainees into any public place or on public transportation, so long as the puppy or dog does not pose a direct threat to the health and safety of others.

Much like waving a child off to college, what happens now is entirely up to the individual dogs. Many will thrive in formal training where they learn, among other things, training cues for forward, right and left turns, stopping at curbs and how to safely help their person cross the street. The dogs are also evaluated for temperament and personality, which helps trainers eventually pair dogs with the best-matched visually-impaired handlers. Training is not taken lightly.  It’s a detailed process that lasts six months; after all, dogs who graduate will have handlers’ lives in their paws.

Not every dog will make the cut. Those who don’t make the grade are evaluated for other jobs such as search and rescue or detection work for law enforcement. If the dog is ultimately tagged for early retirement, his puppy raiser is offered first right of refusal on adoption.

As the raisers head home from GDA, dog-less leash in-hand, the dogs get to know their kennelmates in a ritualistic greeting pattern of butt sniffs and playful body slams.

Not exactly Ivy League material, but these pups are in for a life-changing education nonetheless.