Dogs have been used as “helper animals” for humans for many years. The classic example is the guide dog for visually impaired people. Dogs have been performing this role unofficially for hundreds of years, although it's only in the past century that their breeding and training has become formalized, with dedicated training schools and programs around the world.
In the past 20 years, dogs have been used far more widely as assistants for humans, and also as a form of therapy. The terminology used to describe such animals varies, but the tasks that they complete are universally appreciated.
Deaf assistance dogs have become popular for people with impaired hearing, carrying out simple tasks like letting their guardians know that the phone is ringing, or that there’s somebody at the front door.
Assistance dogs for children with autism are specially bred and trained dogs which carry out many small tasks. There are two main areas where they excel. First, they become a loving and loyal long term companion for the child, bringing huge emotional benefits. Second, they carry out a very practical task by dropping down to the ground and freezing if the child tries to bolt during family excursions. This allows families to carry out routine activities like shopping or going to the movies which would previously have been difficult because of the risk of the child running off unexpectedly.
A wide group of assistance animals can offer help to people with a range of physical disabilities. Examples include Cerebral Palsy, Spina Bifida, Polio, Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s Disease, Muscular Dystrophy, arthritis, spinal injuries and people with amputated limbs. Dogs are trained to complete a wide range of tasks, including opening doors, picking up dropped or difficult to reach objects, retrieving the telephone, the mail and medicines, carrying the shopping, assisting with dressing and undressing, loading and unloading the laundry from the washing machine, pressing the button at the pedestrian crossing or in an elevator, and collecting money dispensed by a hole-in-the-wall cash machine.
Medical assistance dogs are trained to carry out specific tasks that relate to their guardian's medical condition. Examples include detecting low blood glucose in diabetic patients, or helping epileptic people, possibly by predicting the onset of a seizure and by acting as an assistant during a seizure.
Medical detection dogs have a specific, technical purpose: they are able to carry out remarkable feats of scent detection, being used in a laboratory setting to detect cancer by sniffing sample pots of urine. This is an exciting area which is rapidly developing as research confirms the effectiveness of such canine skills.
Therapy dogs have also become increasingly popular; these animals are trained to provide companionship and comfort to people in institutions such as hospitals, care homes, schools and hospices, in situations where people may not be able to have a dog of their own. Therapy dogs are often family pets that have been chosen because of their placid temperament, then trained with their guardians acting as volunteers to take them on visits. The impact of therapy dogs can be dramatic, encouraging socially withdrawn people to engage, and having a visible, positive impact on some patients with advanced conditions (such as Alzheimer’s).
Most of us see our pets as close friends and companions, but for people with specific needs, there's a wide vista of opportunities for dogs to impress with their astonishing ability to learn tasks, and their willingness to help us when asked to do so.