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A Helping Paw

Body balance through reflexology, a therapy that’s growing up.

By Violet Snow

June 2009


It was the start of a great relationship. In 1995, Willie, a golden retriever, became the companion of artist and photographer Joanne Weber, who lives in rural Michigan. Frequent and debilitating seizures had made her a shut-in as a result of scar tissue on the brain from a childhood accident combined with overwork as a training director for a bank. “For seven years, my life was consumed with illness,” recalls Weber. “With Willie, it opened up and became full. I had confidence knowing how Willie would respond if I had a seizure in public. Now I can do everything except drive.”

Willie’s story isn’t unusual. “Dogs like to work,” says Greg Goebel, of Albertville, New York. “It gives them a sense of purpose and an outlet for their energy.” Goebel should know; four of his Labrador retrievers take turns making weekly visits to children at the Ronald McDonald House associated with Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park, New York.

Labs and golden retrievers, with their easygoing dispositions, have traditionally made excellent guides for the blind—Leo, one of Goebel’s dogs, has sired a number of puppies that are being trained as guides—as well as therapy dogs for hospital patients and emotionally troubled children.

Today the career-minded dog has new options. Canine Companions International (CCI, www.cci.org) trains companion dogs for people in wheelchairs and for the deaf and hearing-impaired. Paws with a Cause (www.pawswithacause.org) provides similar services and prepares assistance dogs for people with seizure disorders.

Reliable Friend

Weber is a good example of the people now being helped by service dogs. Her attacks range from complex partial seizures—which may entail a brief session of unconsciousness with staring and repetitive motions—to whole-body grand mal convulsions. “I take medication several times a day, and an alarm goes off to remind me,” Weber says. “But I don’t always hear it if I’m in an episode of staring.” Due to the skipped meds, the grand mal seizures had increased in frequency until Weber was afraid to leave the house.

Willie would lie with Weber when she had a seizure, protecting her from injury and soothing her when she awoke, and reassuring onlookers if it happened in public. If she needed help after regaining consciousness at home, she could tell him to press a button on an auto-dial box connected to the phone. He also responded to each medication alarm. By sticking to her schedule, she was able to lessen the number of grand mal attacks and make her seizures more manageable.

Some dogs form such an intimate bond with their owners that they learn to predict seizures—it’s unknown whether they respond to scent or a change in heart rate or some other signal. Willie was such a dog; he would warn Weber 10 to 30 minutes in advance of a seizure by nudging her so she could get to a safe place before losing consciousness.

When Willie passed away in 2007, Paws with a Cause trained another dog for Weber. Mitchell has been with her for a year. He has not yet learned to predict seizures, but, she says, “He’s getting close. I’m seeing signs.”

Customized Training

To be effective dogs must be custom-trained to their owners, notes Deb Davis, who handles marketing and communications manager for Paws in Wayland, Michigan. “When we interview clients, they describe their seizures, which can be different for each person. During the learning process, the trainer simulates the seizures.”

Debra Dougherty, executive director of CCI’s northeastern region, says most of the dogs they train come from their breeding program in Santa Rosa, California. At eight weeks of age, puppies go to live with volunteers for 14 to 16 months of socialization and basic training. They then spend six to nine months at the Medford, New York, center, where they learn 45 task-oriented commands. “‘Get’ is to retrieve an item dropped on the floor by someone in a wheelchair,” explains Dougherty. “‘Lap’ gets them to place the object in the person’s lap. They are also trained for transactions. The owner can give the dog a credit card or money to give to a cashier. They open and close doors and turn on lights.”

Customized training for other types of assistance may also be needed. “We had a young boy with limited upper body mobility,” recalls Dougherty. “He had an intercom in his room to wake up his parents when he kicked his covers off, which was often. We taught the dog to pull up the covers, so his parents could sleep through the night.”

Prospective owners are interviewed to make sure a dog would be appropriate for them. Once a dog is trained for each individual, she or he spends two weeks at Medford learning to work with the dog.
CCI also trains hearing dogs, which alert deaf owners to sounds by nudging on the arm or leg and then leading the person to the source, such as a doorbell or microwave timer. “Dogs are trained in environments set up with lots of noises,” says Jeanine Konopelski, CCI’s national marketing director.

“They learn to ignore garbage trucks and lawn mowers. Then training has to be customized to particular sounds—everyone’s doorbell is different.” One of CCI’s owners is a mother. “If her child calls, ‘Mommy,’ the dog alerts her,” says Konopelski.

An assistance dog is more than a furry aide. “They are wonderful friends,” Weber says. “They give you a reason to get up in the morning, and they make you laugh.”

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