Change is constant . . . but it takes time. It wasn’t until 1975 that the first organization to train dogs to assist with physical disabilities, Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), was founded. Before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990, the most common assistance dogs were the guide or the “seeing eye dogs,” which have been utilized for blind and low-vision individuals since World War I.

Prior to the CCI founding and the passing of the ADA, human beings suffering from severe physical and mental maladies (requiring 24/7 attention) were left to struggle with an inadequate support system. However, despite humble beginnings, positive awareness of assistance dog benefits has been fueled by innovative training techniques and has grown through mass media word-of-mouth. Now, more people are turning to assistance dogs than ever before in order to lead more independent lives.

What Are Assistance Dogs?

As defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act, service animals (also known as assistance dogs and service dogs) are dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. The work or task that the dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to a person’s disability. Disabled persons who qualify for service dog support include the deaf, the blind, epileptics, wheel-chair bound patients, sufferers of mental illness and people afflicted with debilitating illnesses.

Assistance Dogs

Under Titles II and III of the ADA, service animals are permitted to accompany people with disabilities in any place where members of the public are allowed to go. Restaurants, hotels, sports facilities, shopping malls, taxicabs, concert halls, theaters, airlines are all considered public places. By law, businesses cannot charge a disabled person extra money and they cannot separate a disabled person from other customers because of their certified assistance dog. And wherever a disabled person is at any given time, their assistance dog may be required to perform a number of support tasks, including but not limited to:

  • Pulling a wheelchair
  • Alerting people who are deaf
  • Reminding a person with a mental illness to take their prescribed medication
  • Guiding people who are blind
  • Alerting diabetics to life-threatening changes in their blood glucose levels
  • Alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure
  • Calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder during an anxiety attack

In order to be able to perform such tasks, assistance dogs typically undergo one to two years of training, depending on the type of assistance they provide. Service dogs can be provided and trained by several organizations such as the National Animal Service Registry (NASR), Canine Companions for Independence and Paws for Veterans, a non-profit organization that saves the lives of shelter dogs and trains them to assist injured (whether physically or emotionally) military combat veterans. Because assistance dogs are on duty 24/7, their work is exhausting and it does indeed take a cumulative toll on the animal. Paul Mundell, President of Canine Companions for Independence, tells MiLLENNiAL “on average, an assistance dog works for eight to ten years, depending on their breed and duties.” Then, it’s on to a well-deserved retirement.

The Little Buddha, An Assistance Dog In Action

Assistance Dogs

Twenty-seven year-old northern California resident Meryl Cohen has suffered from complex Lyme Disease, Babesia, Bartonella and Mycoplasma for seventeen years (she’s spent four and a half of those seventeen years in treatment). Meryl’s relentless, debilitating symptoms include neurological deficits, gastrointestinal complications, chronic fatigue (causing her to sleep 15 to 20 hours per day), agoraphobia, social anxiety, increased susceptibility to infection, photophobia, light sensitivity, permanent joint damage and chronic seizures. Keep in mind that the listed symptoms are only a handful among many other symptoms. To this date, Meryl’s been in three seizure-induced car accidents. And she’s only able to stay out of a wheelchair with consistent pain medication use. Clearly, Meryl’s affliction is one that she nor any other human being cannot tackle without reliable help.

Assistance Dogs

Cooper, Meryl’s assistance dog of three years, is a seven year-old Labrador and Bull Mastiff mix. He wears a specific mobility harness to help Meryl get around. Using the harness, Cooper can pull Meryl up flights of stairs or brace her for when she walks down stairs as well. Should Meryl become fatigued and need to lean against Cooper, he’s able to support her weight by using the mobility harness. A jack of all trades, Cooper can also hit elevator buttons, press switches, open doors (if they’re light enough in weight) and, most importantly, he can cuddle. But ultimately, Cooper acts as a calming companion, radiating a Zen-like quality that’s earned him the title of “Little Buddha” from Meryl’s yoga classmates. Cooper once even saved Meryl’s life by barking non-stop and alerting hotel neighbors when Meryl had a full grand-mal seizure, standing over her as a protector until the paramedics arrived. “I don’t feel safe without him. He’s like my guardian angel,” Meryl reveals to MiLLENNiAL.

Anyone who’s owned a dog like Cooper knows that it’s in the canine’s nature to protect, to nourish and to be a best friend. Not only do service dogs improve the quality of life and save lives, they facilitate the values of compassion, companionship and the importance of giving back. As Paul Mundell says, “an assistance dog can help people see that a disability does not define a person or their talents and abilities.” Rather, assistance dogs can help a person to see that they can adapt to their disability, harness their talents, despite their disability, and ultimately choose to define themselves.