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February 2003

Hello and Whoof!

Assistance dog fetching purse.

By Peter Bennett,
Australian Support Dogs.

Did you know that dogs may be trained to fetch and carry, open and close doors, pull wheelchairs, lift immobilized limbs, and go for help? Under the Disability Discrimination Act assistance dogs are also allowed to accompany their partner into most public places (such as shops and restaurants) when they are working.

Assistance dogs are relatively new in Australia, although well established in the United States, where they are known as service dogs.

My dog Catja has made an incredible difference to my life during the past nine years. I have a high level spinal cord injury and Catja is my hands and legs when required and my trusty, loyal companion providing safety and eliminating any sense of vulnerability.

As a result of my own experiences I became a founding member of ASDOG (Australian Support DOGs), together with Allan Quirk and Ian Kelf. We are a small, dedicated group of people with disabilities who want others to benefit from an assistance dog.

Myself and Allan Quirk have our own assistance dogs. The polio Allan contracted in 1956 caused severe paralysis. He now uses callipers and crutches and has been assisted in recent years by his dog Zuga.

"I've lost count of the number of times Zuga has picked up my crutch ... I'm usually home on my own. If I tried to pick them up myself I could overload my torn shoulder and fall over ... Zuga makes it possible for me to feel relaxed about living at home with minimal intervention."

Sadly, Zuga passed away a year ago. Allan is now assisted by Jacko. The third member of our small team is Ian Kelf. A Veterinarian with over 23 years' experience in practice, Ian has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair.

Assistance dog opening cupboard door for owner.

Training

ASDOG chooses dogs that are best suited to their recipient's special needs. These dogs must have a very special temperament. Formal training begins between 12 and 18 months of age.

Assistance dog training is based on the principles of operant conditioning and clicker-training, rewarding positive behaviours, not punishment of negative performance. Initial training is obedience. Once we determine who will be the recipient, their specific needs are identified and the dog receives training aimed at those needs.

Assistance Dogs live full-time in the homes of their trainers, where training is combined with socialisation. Then there will be a 3-6 month training period in the recipient's home, during which we teach and assist the recipient.

The ASDOG training program was developed with the help of Texas Hearing and Service Dogs, who have successfully produced over 100 hearing and service dogs over the past ten years. Costs are kept to a minimum by training only a few dogs at a time, choosing "recycled dogs" (surrendered or donated dogs) and the generous donation of time by many volunteers and trainers.

Peter Bennet with Catja.

Curious?

While most people are aware of the wonderful work done by "Guide Dogs for the Blind" it is not so well known that Assistance dogs are available to help people with physical disabilities.

Do recipients need to be in wheelchairs to obtain an Assistance Dog?
No. Not all disabilities require the use of a wheelchair. Some recipients may be walking with the assistance of crutches. Assistance dogs can help with the retrieval of an out of reach or dropped crutch or other object. Other disabilities, such as arthritis, may require help with retrieval of objects. An Assistance Dog may be the answer.
How long does it take to train an Assistance Dog?
The time can vary but is usually in the region of four to six months.
Do Assistance Dogs ever get to be just dogs and play?
Yes. They need downtime and fun just like other dogs. The bond between recipient and dog means that the recipient gets as much pleasure from seeing the dog having fun as the dog does.
What breeds of dogs are used as Assistance Dogs?
At present, ASDOG is working with Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers. Any breed of dog can be used, provided the temperament is right. Consequently, ASDOG tends to use breeds that are intelligent, calm and eager to please.
How do you know that the dogs are healthy?
We usually take dogs aged about 12 months - that is, fully grown. Once it is ascertained that a dog is temperamentally suitable, it undergoes a full veterinary examination and has its hips and elbows x-rayed. If it is found to be healthy, it is vaccinated and desexed. If not already underway, worming for intestinal parasites and heartworm prevention is instituted. The dog is then handed over to the trainer.
How do I get an Assistance Dog?

If you have a disability and believe that an assistance dog would be beneficial, you can contact ASDOG to request an application form. Applicants must be at least 18 years of age.

It costs ASDOG in the region of $10,000 by the time the dog is handed over to the recipient. These costs are met by charitable fundraising and donations. The recipient pays nothing other than the application fee (currently $25). The recipient must be able to maintain the cost of caring for the dog - that is, feeding an acceptable diet and veterinary care after taking the dog into their home.

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