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Assistance Dogs

Canine Partners Help People Walk and Live Independently
By: Caregiver Zone

Most people know dogs can be trained to guide the blind and alert the deaf to sounds. Now service dogs are being taught new ways to help people with Parkinson's disease, paralysis and even epilepsy.

Independence Dogs Inc. (IDI) of Chadds Ford, Pa., was the first organization to train "walker dogs," which stabilize balance for Parkinson's patients and help them walk at a normal pace instead of shuffling. Today, about a dozen walker dogs are in service with human partners, said Dave Elms, public relations manager of IDI.

"The dogs provide stability and balance," Elms said. "If someone is pitching forward or to the side, the dog senses that and counterbalances them. One man was walking upright but the dog, a Labrador cross (breed), was leaning away at a 15-degree angle holding him up."

Walker dogs change the lives of seniors with Parkinson's, Elms said. "We had one man with Parkinson's who hadn't been out for five years. Now he walks a couple of miles a day. The dog provides not just physical support, but also emotional."

Herman Fritzenkotter, 77, a San Diego sculptor, relies on a Great Dane named Rikki Lee to help with balance problems caused by Parkinson's disease. For 20 years, Herman walked only with the aid of his wife, Pat, or crutches. Occasionally he falls and needs help getting up. Herman also periodically freezes while walking. "It's like your feet are stuck in cement," he said. "You try to tell them to move and they won't do it."

For years Pat, also 77, stayed close to support Herman if he needed help. Then two days after their 50th anniversary, their lives changed with the arrival of Rikki Lee.

Herman spent three weeks at IDI learning to work with his canine partner. Now he no longer needs crutches - and Pat doesn't have to stay constantly by Herman's side.

"Rikki Lee helps Herman and she helps me, too," Pat said. "I don't always have to be right there."

The dog wears a harness with a handle Herman holds for balance and stability. He seldom falls now, but when he does, Rikki Lee braces like a table so Herman can pull himself up. And the freezes are no longer a problem. On Herman's command, Rikki Lee lightly taps her paw on her human partner's foot, breaking the spell.

"Freezing is a big thing with me," Herman said. "I can't go through a doorway without freezing. Rikki Lee helps me with freezing and with my gait. She helps me walk straighter and faster, and she steadies me and keeps me from falling."

An additional benefit is her social value. Before Rikki Lee, when Herman went out in public, people would stare at the way he moved. Now they stop to chat. "People are looking at the dog now, not the person," Pat said. "The disability becomes less conspicuous."

In addition to stabilizing balance, service dogs can help pull wheelchairs, retrieve objects, assist in dressing, open and close doors, operate alarm devices and alert to medical conditions such as low blood sugar or oncoming seizures.

Maribel Schumann, 66, uses a wheelchair full-time. Friends and family pressured her to move into a nursing home, but she chose instead to stay in her Bryan, Texas, home with the help of a service dog.

Schumann contacted Texas Hearing and Service Dogs in Austin and was partnered with Honor. The golden retriever picks up dropped items, answers the door, helps Schumann up if she falls and does many other tasks. "She is my life," Schumann said. "Without her I would have to be in assisted living. With her I can live in my own home and be independent."

Honor also saved Schumann's life. When a porch swing gave way, knocking Schumann unconscious, Honor licked her face until she revived, then helped her into her wheelchair. Schumann, severely disoriented from head trauma and heavy blood loss, then sent Honor to press the phone button connected to an emergency service. When dispatchers heard no voice on the line, they checked their records on Schumann, which told them to call the dog's name. Honor barked in trained response, signifying serious emergency, and dispatchers sent an ambulance.

"Without Honor I would not be alive," Schumann said.

Guide dogs

A guide dog walks in harness slightly ahead of its vision-impaired human partner, avoiding obstacles, stopping at curbs and retracing familiar routes. Seeing Eye Inc. of Morristown, N.J., trained the first guide dogs, and many people still refer to all guide dogs as "Seeing Eye dogs." However, dozens of organizations now train dogs to assist people with vision loss.

Ed Eames, 70, of Fresno, Calif., is partnered with Echo, his fourth guide dog. Ed's wife, Toni, 56, also blind, has a guide dog named Escort. Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester, Mich., trained both golden retrievers.

"Ed has an extraordinarily active mind, and that drives him to go places and do things," Toni said. Last year the Eames entourage - Ed, Toni and "the boys" - logged 15 states and two Caribbean islands in their travels. Their guide dogs facilitate this busy lifestyle.

The Eameses lecture at universities and conferences teaching the veterinary industry how to relate to disabled clients when treating their service animals and pets. They also teach disability sensitivity workshops for airline personnel. "The epitome of the human/animal bond can be seen in the relationship between a disabled person and assistance dog," Ed said. "Collectively, we have a mission to spread the word."

Hearing dogs

A hearing dog alerts its deaf human partner to smoke alarms, doorbells, telephones, someone calling the owner's name and other significant sounds. The dog touches the person and then indicates the source of sound.

Training organizations adopt many hearing dog candidates from animal shelters. The San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SFSPCA) has developed its own Hearing Dog Program, providing trained hearing dogs to people of all ages, including many seniors.

Martha Hoffman, a trainer for the SFSPCA Hearing Dog Program, selects the dogs to be trained. "We try to pick dogs that were potential working dogs from the get-go, even though they're in the shelter," Hoffman said. No particular breed excels as hearing dogs, she said. Eighty percent of the candidates are mixed breeds.

From waking a person when the morning alarm sounds to leading a parent or grandparent to a crying child, hearing dogs can greatly improve quality of life for deaf individuals. Many have been credited with saving the lives of owners who were unaware of emergency warnings.

Think you can't have an assistance dog?

The 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act guarantees disabled people - including those with assistance animals - access to all public places. Don't allow these common misperceptions to keep you from considering an assistance dog:

  • "My landlord doesn't allow pets." Assistance animals are NOT pets. The Americans With Disabilities Act permits disabled persons to have trained assistance dogs live with them, regardless of pet rules.

  • "Such a highly trained dog must cost a fortune." Training is costly, but many assistance dog providers, funded by donations, charge recipients little or nothing for the dogs. Contact the providers and ask them.

  • "Dogs chew, bark and jump on people." Not assistance dogs. They receive training in house and public manners as well as service tasks.

  • "I can't afford to feed and care for a dog on my fixed income." Several states offer a monthly stipend to help pay for the care and feeding of assistance dogs. Contact your state's Department of Social Services to find out if a stipend is available to you. Also, check with animal shelters in your area to find local programs that help people on fixed incomes keep assistance animals and pets.

Assistance dog organizations

Canine Companions for Independence (service and hearing dogs)
P.O. Box 446
Santa Rosa, CA 95402-0446
(707) 577-1700

Dogs for the Deaf Inc.
10175 Wheeler Road
Central Point, OR 97502
(541) 826-9220

Guide Dogs for the Blind Inc.
P.O. Box 1200
San Rafael, CA 94915
(415) 499-4000

Leader Dogs for the Blind
1039 Rochester Road
Rochester, MI 48063
(248) 651-9011

Pacific Assistance Dog Society
9048 Stormont Ave.
Burnaby, BC V3N 3G6, Canada
(604) 527-0556

Paws With a Cause (service, hearing and seizure response dogs)
4646 S. Division
Wayland, MI 49348
(800) 253-7297

San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
Hearing Dog Program
2500 16th St.
San Francisco, CA 94103
(415) 554-3020

Southeastern Guide Dogs Inc.
4210 77th St. East
Palmetto, FL 34221
(941) 729-5665

Texas Hearing and Service Dogs
4803 Rutherglen Drive
Austin, TX 78749-3744
(512) 891-9090

The Seeing Eye Inc.
P.O. Box 375
Morristown, NJ 07963-0375
(973) 539-4425


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