If you’ve ever come across an assistance dog in a store or on the street, you might have noticed how well-behaved it was. You probably didn’t realize the amount of training, resources, and work that’s gone into making it such a highly-skilled companion. However, as anyone who owns an assistance dog will probably agree, there isn’t really a concrete value that can be assigned to one of these dogs. They’re priceless, and that’s why one week each year is set aside to recognize these amazing animals.
International Assistance Dog Week begins on the first Sunday in August.
One of the big goals of International Assistance Dog Week is simply spreading awareness and education about assistance dogs. Many people underestimate the intelligence and training level that these dogs have, so it’s difficult to truly appreciate them. By starting conversations about assistance dogs, more people will become aware of just how impressive they are.
For instance, assistance dogs can smell chemical changes in the body and alert their owners. They can learn as many as 90 different commands or cues. Assistance dogs are even smart enough to know when not to do as they’re told. Intelligent disobedience is when an assistance dog refuses to carry out a command for a good reason, as when its blind owner gives the “forward” command but the dog refuses because there’s an obstacle ahead.
There are several different types of assistance dogs to honor during International Assistance Dog Week.
Each type of assistance dog is specially trained to carry out a specific job. Then each dog is matched to someone who needs help in a specific area of his or her life. The different types of assistance dogs include:
- Guide dogs or seeing-eye dogs. These dogs are trained to help blind people navigate the world a little more safely.
- Mobility dogs. Any job that might be difficult for someone with mobility issues can be taught to be a mobility dog. This can include opening and closing doors, pushing buttons, retrieving and picking up items, and even assisting with walking, balancing, or standing up.
- Hearing dogs. Hearing dogs work with deaf or hard-of-hearing people, altering them to noises like babies, phones, or alarms.
- Seizure dogs. These dogs are trained to respond to their owners’ seizures staying with their owners, stimulating them by licking or nudging, or going to get help. Although they can’t be trained to detect seizures, many have been known to learn over time and figure out how to alert their owners in advance.
- Medical alert dogs. Medical alert dogs are specially trained to work with a specific medical condition. For example, some work with diabetics to alert them of blood sugar fluctuations, while others work with people who have severe allergies to alert them of a severe allergic response.
- Mental health dogs. These dogs do whatever is needed to support their owners, from reminding their owners about medications to providing a buffer against crowds to orienting their owners during flashbacks or panic attacks. People with PTSD, OCD, acute anxiety, or other mental or mood disorders can all benefit from a mental health dog.
- Autism dogs. For children or people with autism, an autism dog can provide an invaluable emotional anchor and reduce emotional overload. Autism dogs can also give their owners (and owners’ families) a sense of security and calm, and they can even help develop their owners’ social and language skills.
International Assistance Dog Week is a time to recognize and honor hard-working assistance dogs.
Assistance dogs are more than just helpers. Certainly they help their owners a lot, but these dogs do more than that. Assistance dogs love their owners no matter what, never judge, and don’t care about disability or appearance. And when someone with a disability has an assistance dog, the dog can break the ice around new people; instead of seeing the disability first, they’ll just see a person with a cool dog.
On top of this, assistance dogs provide independence, which can mean the world to a lot of people. At the website Canine Partners for Life, recipients of assistance dogs can share just how much their dogs mean to them. A young woman named Karley sums up what a difference her dog, Kaiser, has made in her life, stating:
“With Kaiser at my side, I can go anywhere and do almost anything I want to. Today, Kaiser is the only one I have to ask help from. I can go up and down stairs, I can drive, and I am even going to attend nursing school, all because of him. Kaiser is my best friend and he is the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Another goal of International Assistance Dog Week is to recognize all the people who help get assistance dogs to the people who need them.
From day one, bringing up an assistance dog is a group effort. Many organizations breed their own dogs to train or work with individual dog breeders, while others select dogs from shelters. It is preferred for assistance dogs to be quite young when they start training, so it’s most common for preparations to start almost from the day a puppy is born. Canine Assistants states that its dogs start training at two days of age.
Once a puppy is old enough to be separated from its mother, it goes to a puppy raiser. This person (and his or her family) take the pup everywhere, introduce it to as many people and animals as possible, and expose it to as many different situations, noises, and experiences as possible.
After living with a puppy raiser, the future assistance dog undergoes specialized training. Some assistance dogs undergo just over a year of training, while some are trained for three or more years. Once a dog is ready to be placed, it’s matched with its owner. Often the dog and new owner will have to do some training to learn how to work together.
Each step of this process requires a lot of time, money, and effort. During International Assistance Dog Week, take a moment to appreciate all the people who work hard to provide assistance dogs. A lot of assistance dog organizations accept donations, so if you’ve come into contact with an organization that impressed you, consider giving them a small gift.
To get your own assistance dog, you can go through an organization that trains them, or if you have a smart, well-behaved dog and a lot of patience, you can train your own.
There are lots and lots of organizations that train assistance dogs. To find the one that works best for you, do an online search for the specific type of assistance dog you’re looking for. You can also search for organizations near you, but keep in mind that a day or two of driving is preferable if it means ending up with the perfect assistance dog. Also, many assistance dog organizations have a long waiting list, sometimes with over a thousand people and an estimated wait time of five or more years, so don’t expect to apply today and bring your assistance dog home tomorrow.
Training an assistance dog is a huge investment of time. It’s hard work and can be very frustrating. Not every dog is cut out to be an assistance dog, and not every person is cut out to be a trainer. However, if you want to try your hand at training your dog to help around the house, start out with these easy commands, and check for online videos at sites like YouTube for more advanced training. Better yet, find a dog trainer who can help and explain what you want to accomplish. If you want to be able to take your dog inside stores or restaurants or onto planes, check out all the information here.
This year International Assistance Dog Week is being celebrated from August 2nd to August 8th.
Even if you don’t have an assistance dog, try to find a way to honor assistance dogs this week. Strike up a conversation at work, make a small donation, or look into being a puppy raiser. If you know someone who’s involved in raising assistance dogs, go out of your way to say thanks.
And if you have a dog at home that’s definitely not a trained assistance dog, that’s okay. One of the reasons assistance dogs are so great is their unconditional, judgement-free love and their ability to cheer people up no matter what. As long as your dog loves you and can make you smile, it’s close enough to deserve an extra treat or toy during International Assistance Dog Week.
How will you observe International Assistance Dog Week?
Image by Can Do Canines via Flickr