Over the past month, my sister has been volunteering at an organization called Helping Paws, based in Minnesota. Through her, I’ve learned a lot about the world of assistive dogs. Helping Paws is a nonprofit that provides service dogs to those with a physical disability other than loss of vision or blindness.
Before talking with her, I had not recognized that there was a correlation between a dog’s title (guide, hearing, or service) and the different training they receive. I assumed that most assistive dogs were guide dogs, serving individuals who are blind or have low vision. However, I quickly realized there were other “types” of assistive dogs, such as a hearing dog. Hearing, or “signal,” dogs are trained to help those who are deaf or hard of hearing by alerting their owners to important noises such as alarms, doorbells, or telephones. The type of dogs that the Helping Paws trains are service dogs, who are trained to help with a wider variety of tasks, such as assisting with mobility, helping with psychiatric disabilities, and finding someone to help in an emergency.
Helping Paws specifically trains and places service dogs to help with mobility. They place the dogs with people as young as 10 years old who have a disability that limits their independence. These dogs are trained to pick up objects such as cell phones, eyeglasses, or even a coin. They can open and close doors, turn the lights on or off, and even help someone transfer onto a wheelchair. By the time the dogs graduate, they have a 78 word vocabulary and are ready to help their companion with some of their daily tasks.
The dogs’ skills are incredibly impressive. Their training has the capacity to improve the lives of their companions. Imagine being unable to bend down to reach something off the ground; a dog that could pick up your phone after you drop it could be incredibly useful. There are also the benefits of their company and companionship.
Obviously not all people would want an assistive dog for various reasons, including dislike or fear or dogs, allergies (most of the dogs trained for this line of work are Labradors, Golden Retrievers, or German Shepherds), or financial reasons. But for those who would like the companionship and the increase in independence, an assistive dog could be fantastic.
Getting involved with an organization that trains service dogs like Helping Paws is not difficult. Most organizations need volunteer foster families to take care of the newborn puppies until they are socialized and ready for a more intense training. Other volunteer opportunities also exist, such as helping at a fundraising event, working in the kennels, and community education programs. One organization located in Massachusetts that trains assistive dogs is NEADS (neads.org). They have a page to fill out a volunteer application and they state that they “encourage people to engage in a volunteer activity that draws upon their natural talents and interests. . . the opportunities are limitless!”
Of course, donations are appreciated at these non-profit organizations as well. Guide Dogs of America (guidedogsofamerica.org) estimates that a donation of $50 could feed a dog for one month in the kennels and $300 covers the cost of vaccinations required. A total of $42,000 would pay for the expenses of raising and training one dog and cover the cost of transportation and room and board for the new owner as they learn about how to care for their dog.