Service dog training organizations have historically not been able to keep up with demand, and Sarah Walker was typical of most people who applied for an assistance dog. She had a five-year wait before receiving her first dog in 2003.
For Sarah, who uses a wheelchair due to spina bifida, the arrival of her first dog Jules was life-changing. For the first time, Sarah could fully manage her life on her own. Her work life was great; she has worked at Channel 13 (WTHR), the NBC affiliate television station in Indianapolis for the past 13 years. What she needed was a little help with some of the day-to-day things the rest of us take for granted. The arrival of Jules in her life made independent living so much easier.
Like other service dogs, Jules (and now Sarah’s current dog, Hepburn) are trained to respond to many commands—some learn as may as 89 different tasks, but the actual work each dog performs varies depending on each owner’s circumstances. While some service dogs are needed for things like turning on lights, opening doors, and throwing things away, the task Sarah most appreciates from her dog is the fact that Jules–now Hepburn–can pick things up.
“When I drop something, Hepburn will pick it up for me right away…”
The task is simple, yet its effect on Sarah’s life is enormous. Imagine dropping something you are using–anything from a wash cloth to a fork or a pencil–and think of the frustration you would feel if you had no possible way to pick it up until the next time someone stopped by your house.
Sarah has a car with hand controls, so she can drive herself to her job at WTHR where she is currently a log editor in the traffic department. She can also do her own shopping and her own errands, but for all of these daily tasks, Hepburn makes life so much easier.
Hepburn goes to work with Sarah to help with anything that comes up during the day, and one of her morning tasks is carrying Sarah’s lunch bag to the car. (That alone is impressive…my dogs would eat it on the way to the car!) When it comes to shopping and errands, Hepburn helps ease the way, and also carries small packages back to the car.
The picture above shows Jules (on the right), Sarah Walker’s first service dog, next to Hepburn, the dog Sarah received when Jules was too old to continue working. (Jules stayed on as a pet even after his retirement, though he passed away this summer.)
The Story Behind Service Dogs
The first use of a service dog in the U.S. dates to 1928 when Morris Frank, who was blind, brought the first Seeing Eye dog to this country and helped gain acceptance of a service animal in public places.
Americans with other types of impairments did not have a “service animal option” until almost fifty years later. Dr. Bonita Bergin, Ed.D was working in Asia and noted that people there used donkeys and other animals to help those who had mobility difficulties. When Bergin returned to the U.S. she was determined to develop this type of program, and in 1975 she founded Canine Companions for Independence, the first service dog training program in the United States. In 1976 the first graduate of the program was placed with a woman who was quadriplegic.
Canine Companions for Independence is based in Santa Rosa, California, and has grown steadily over the years; CCI now has several different training locations. The four basic types of training performed are for preparing dogs to assist individuals with mobility issues; training dogs to help people who have multiple disabilities; teaching dogs to alert the hearing-impaired to information they need to know. In addition, CCI trains dogs to work with staff and patients in various types of convalescent facilities.
Animals are assigned based on need and the program and the animals are funded by donation.
More Progress Needed
Like Sarah Walker, other people had experienced a long wait for their first animal (once you have qualified for an animal, the replacement process is much more rapid.) Dr. Bergin felt her next step was figuring out a way to increase the number of animals trained so that people who needed them could get them without such a long wait.
In 1991, Dr. Bonita Bergin left CCI and founded the Assistance Dog Institute, also based in Santa Rosa. By early 2004, what is now known as Bergin University of Canine Studies received official designation as a university and now can award associate’s degrees, bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees, all in canine studies.
Within this university setting and its special research programs, Bergin also wanted to more fully explore the canine-human partnership. She hopes to blaze new trails in the way that dogs can help humans and how human knowledge can be enhanced by better understanding of the dog-and-people bond. She has also implemented a program called “Helping Dogs Help People,” and she has developed a High School Assistance Dog Program for at-risk teens.
Bergin is also committed to the fact that dogs can learn to take commands by “reading.” She is pioneering a program where dogs learn to recognize and obey the motions displayed by stick figure illustrations that are shown to them.
Since Bergin first began her program, she and other similar organizations are working to expand the role of dogs and the types of assistance work that they can do. Some dogs are now being trained to be alert to an owner’s seizures or migraines so that help can be at hand more rapidly; dogs are also helping people who have autism, Alzheimer’s, and post-traumatic stress syndrome.
And as a special bonus, many programs are working with their dogs on “snuggle.” At the end of a long day, how nice that would be?