I have always had dogs. We had two when I was a kid, and when they died, we had two more. When I moved to University I bought myself a Golden Retriever and two years later purchased another one. When they passed away we adopted another Golden, and this December brought home a Golden puppy (Timber – photo above) to join our family. I will say I am totally in love with this breed, and really with dogs in general (we have an adopted cat too but after owning a cat I can officially say I am a dog person).
Yes dogs are hairy, poop in your yard (lots), lick themselves, have eye goop, and occasionally have accidents or barf in the house. They can chew stuff too, are expensive to feed and even more expensive to train, groom and keep healthy. So, why bother? Because animals are amazing for your health, and are becoming more and more recognized as being able to offer therapeutic and functional benefit.
According to Web-MD the health benefits of owning animals are immense. People that own animals tend to have lower blood pressure, less anxiety and depression, better immunity, and less allergies. Animals in the home are proven to reduce angry outbursts by people with Dementia, prolong the lifespan of seniors, heart-attack patients fare better in their recovery, and dog owners walk an estimated 68% more than the general public.
Then, there are service or guide dogs. These dogs are professionally trained at a young age to assist persons with disabilities. While service dogs initially began helping the visually impaired, training programs now exist to teach service dogs to assist persons with a variety of conditions including hearing impairments, seizures, physical disability, autism and diabetes. For example, guide dogs can be taught to distinguish sounds, make physical contact with their handlers, and lead them to the source of noise; be it someone at the door, an alarm clock, crying baby, or a ringing telephone. Guide dogs who assist their handlers with a physical disability retrieve objects, flick switches, open and close appliances, and doors. They are also trained to bark or activate an alert system when help is needed. They can warn of an oncoming seizure, and some are even trained to protect victims of violence from a perpetrator. Together guide and service dogs can increase someone’s level of independence, safety, security, and reduce the impact of disability on a daily basis.
It is important to highlight, however, that service dogs are not just pets – these are working animals, highly trained that need to be 100% attentive to their owner at all times. Distractions can lead to mistakes, and this can harm the dog and handler. This is why people and children are told to not pet service dogs however tempting that may be. Ultimately, service dogs should be treated by the public as an assistive device – there to help maximize safety and function, but not to be tampered with.
While the cost to raise and train a puppy to be a future service dog is about $25,000, the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides, and Canadian Dog Guides for the Blind, provide guide these for those in need at no cost. As part of the process, they match the person to their dog, provide training for the handler, including supply of the appropriate equipment, such as the guide dog’s identification harness or collar.
Beyond the health benefits of pet ownership, Occupational Therapists recognize that guide dogs can play a key role in supporting a handlers’ ability to be more independent, mobile in the community, and safe both indoors and out. For more information about guide dog programs, talk to your occupational therapist, or visit the Lions Foundation website at http://www.dogguides.com/programs.html or the Canadian Dog Guides for the Blind website at http://www.guidedogs.ca/index2.php.