Service Dogs Help People With Mobility Issues Get Moving

Service dogs help people with mobility disabilities live independently by performing tasks such as opening doors and retrieving dropped objects. These dogs also serve as companions that provide unconditional love. Photos courtesy of Canine Companions for Independence (CCI)

Instructor Angie Schacht sees service and skilled companion dogs change people’s lives every day. Yet she is cognizant that such a remark sounds hokey, like an after-school special.

Still she can tick off several examples of graduates of Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), a nonprofit organization based in Santa Rosa, Calif., that provides trained assistance dogs to people with disabilities.

A young woman with cerebral palsy was accepted in the CCI program and was placed with a skilled companion dog. The woman was shy, refusing to speak to anyone outside her family, says Schacht, but with the help of her classmates, family and dog, she began to open up during team training. After a few months, the woman began to handle the dog on her own and eventually her confidence grew. She began to apply for jobs and is now working.

A man with multiple sclerosis had become more isolated as his disability progressed. Yet after getting his dog, the man started volunteering at a local hospital several times a week. His wife says that having a service dog has changed his life.

Hokey or not, dogs are changing the lives of people with disabilities.

“Most people say that they are safer in public and at home due to the dog’s skill level and that the dog decreases their feelings of isolation since people talk to them more,” Schacht says.

And that’s not to mention all of the tasks these dedicated dogs can do to help make living with a disability a little bit easier.

A Very Capable Dog

CCI boy hugging dog

Dogs that complete the CCI training school know approximately 40 different commands. That includes basic obedience commands such as sit and down. In addition, the dogs can also retrieve dropped items, such as keys or a pen, and deliver them to their handlers.

Pushing drawers and doors open or closed is another skill the dogs have, says CCI apprentice instructor Courtney Wannarka. These skills are especially helpful with push plates to open an automatic door.

“Many of our clients are unable to reach the button, so having the dog to do it for them is of great assistance,” she says.

Doors and drawers can also be opened by attaching a strap to the door. The dogs pull the strap to open the door and are then able to hold the door open for the handler to pass through. This skill can also be applied to dressing: The dogs can tug off clothing such as socks or a jacket.

Some service dogs are also able to turn light switches on and off and pull a client in a wheelchair.

Canine Angels Service Team head instructor Sandy Mays says that the varied abilities of the dogs are meticulously matched to the needs of the individual. At the Grants Pass, Ore.–based organization that provides trained dogs primarily to children, many factors are considered including the equipment (manual versus power chair), whether the dog is more likely to balance an ambulatory person or work next to a wheelchair, and personality and language skills, such as if the person is quiet and reserved with difficult-to-understand speech.

Paying attention to the skill and energy level of each dog is important because the dogs need to be compatible with the needs of the child.

“One child may need a dog to retrieve, do light switches, pull their wheelchair, get help and be their companion, where another might also need a dog that can walk slowly next to them and help them balance or lie on the floor and help brace them behind their back so the child can sit up while leaning on their dog,” says Mays. “Some dogs need to be quiet and calm to match their person, while others need more energy to do lots of tasks and keep up in a busy school day environment.”

The Best of Breeds

CCI dog picking up item

Only a select few breeds of dogs are used as service dogs, and the companies that provide the dogs have good reasons for this.

Labrador and golden retrievers or a cross of the two are commonly trained as service or companion dogs because “these breeds enjoy working, are fairly intelligent and quick learners, and love people,” says Schacht. “They strive to please their people and generally want nothing more than to be with their family.”

These dogs are also a good size for people who use wheelchairs because they are not too large to fit under a table or too small to reach someone in a tall power wheelchair, she says.

Mays says many hunting breeds such as retrievers have a strong desire to work with people, instead of independently, which makes them great for service work.

In addition, Canine Angels frequently uses goldendoodles and labradoodles for their clients with hypoallergenic needs. Generally the retrievers and doodles do well in any climate, which is important for serving clients throughout the United States.

One of the most important features of these dogs, however, is that they have big floppy ears, which makes them less threatening to people in public.

“Our kids are often looking for a dog that can help act as an icebreaker and having people approach them to ask about their dog is one way they can connect with others,” Mays explains. “The general public is more likely to approach a dog with a floppy-eared look than one with pointy, upright ears. This is also true of specific breeds. More people are relaxed seeing a retriever or doodle than seeing a Doberman, German shepherd or other working breed that they deem as a protection dog.”

Both CCI and Canine Angels breed their own dogs. A network of volunteers care for the puppies in their homes and train them in basic obedience skills and house manners as well as provide a lot of socialization in public. Socialization exercises include introducing the dogs to various forms of transportation, other animals, school and work environments, movie theaters and restaurants, Mays says.

The puppies stay with the volunteers until they are 14-16 months old, at which point advanced training begins with professional trainers. Advanced training ranges from 6 to 9 months. The dogs won’t be ready to go to work until they are 2 years old.

The Placement Process

CCI girl hugging dog

Getting a dog capable of responding to the needs of someone with a mobility disability takes time, and the process of placing a dog is not something CCI or Canine Angels takes lightly.

At CCI, the process could take more than two years. First, the potential handler applies for a dog. The application packet is in depth, requiring information about the individuals, their lives, their living situation, what they are looking for from a dog, an autobiography and recent photos of the individuals, their home, their family and their mobility equipment. Then a series of interviews begins: a phone interview with a CCI instructor and an in-person interview. The applicant must also submit medical and professional references. Then the staff discusses the entire application and decides whether the applicant is a good fit. That process alone takes three to six months.

If accepted, applicants are placed on a waiting list until CCI has a dog suitable for their needs. Waiting can take anywhere from 6 months to 2 years. During any point of the process, the applicant can be denied.

The process is similar at Canine Angels, starting with a basic online questionnaire and then moving to an in-depth application that includes forms for the child, a parent and a doctor. In addition, applicants must create a home video to enable the trainers to get a better sense of the home environment the dog will live in, Mays says.

The waiting list at Canine Angels is one to two years and varies according to the specific needs of the applicants and specific skills of the dogs in the program at a given time.

Team in Training

When the right dog becomes available, applicants attend a two-week team training class during which they live in a dormitory facility and attend class each day to learn how to work with and care for their new assistance dogs. Training includes lectures and hands-on practice sessions. At CCI, nightly homework is assigned and a written and practical final exam must be passed for the applicant to receive the dog. At Canine Angels, public access tests must be passed before the team (dog and child) can graduate.

“Our classes are small, and we cater to each person involved, whether they are in wheelchairs, use braces or walkers, or are a family member of a recipient,” says Mays.” The challenge in the training process is more often in learning to be the leader of a dog, which is a major focus of the class.”

At the start of the CCI program, the trainers have two or three dogs in mind for each person, Schacht says. For the first two days, each student works with a variety of dogs. On the third morning, the instructors make matches based on their knowledge of the dogs and the handlers’ abilities and lifestyles. Then the students must bond with their new dogs and learn to work together for the rest of the training.

“The connection between child and dog is very important to the success of the team,” says Mays. The instructors at Canine Angels pay very close attention to the chemistry between dog and child during the training sessions.

Once applicants graduate and take their new dog home, they are encouraged by regular follow-up. CCI calls in for a conference after two to three weeks and then checks in with an in-person follow-up 45 days after graduation. Canine Angels keeps in touch via e-mail, phone calls and in-home visits.

“This is an opportunity to work on any issues that have arisen as well as for CCI to ensure that the teams are safe and successful,” says Wannarka.

Follow-up then moves to every one to three years, depending on the age of the dog and what is going on with the team. During that time, however, training staff is available during business hours to work on any issues. CCI also offers an annual graduate services seminar with multiple sessions on utilizing your dog, problem solving and maintaining a successful team.

“When a dog is nearing the age of retirement, which completely depends on the dog, CCI is available to discuss the process, help graduates decide whether they are able to adopt the dog or possibly place it with a family member, or if those options don’t work,” explains Wannarka. “CCI has a waiting list of people who would love to provide a good home for an aging dog.”

Living With a Dog

Although the cost of getting a dog is free with CCI and Canine Angels, thanks to a number of sponsors, handlers do assume the responsibility for caring for their assistance dogs. Expenses include purchasing food, providing veterinary care, including vaccinations and licensing, and supplying beds, toys, collars and anything else necessary for the dog.

In addition, the handlers must maintain their dogs’ skills.

“They [the dogs] are not robots and will lose their ability to be of assistance if commands are not practiced and refreshed on a regular basis,” says Schacht.

Applicants sign a contract that they will keep the dog healthy and keep in touch with CCI throughout the life of the dog with written documentation and in-person follow-ups. And while CCI maintains legal ownership of the dog, once the dog retires from service, the handler can adopt the dog as a pet.

Are You a Good Candidate for a Dog?

No one ideal candidate exists. Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) works with a wide range of people, from those who are completely ambulatory to people who drive with head controls. Skilled companion recipients have an even wider variance.

The main qualification is simple: “We want people who are willing to learn and who want to use the dogs’ skills to enhance their lives,” says CCI apprentice instructor Courtney Wannarka.

For a skilled companion dog, the applicant must be at least 5 years old. For a service dog, the handler must be at least 1 year post-injury before applying.

Read about service dogs Timberly and Domino and their handlers.

Service vs. Companion: What’s the Difference?

When looking into assistance dogs, be sure you understand the terminology because it can vary from place to place. Here are some terms from Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) and Canine Angels Service Team:

Service dogs partner with adults with physical disabilities to assist with daily tasks and increase independence by reducing reliance on other people. The handler must be someone older than 18 who is physically and cognitively able to manage and care for the dog on their own, according to CCI. However, Canine Angels uses this term to apply to anyone between the ages of 12 and 25 who needs help with physical tasks such as retrieving dropped items, opening and closing doors, and providing stability.

Skilled companion dogs or assisted service dogs work with someone younger than 18 or someone older than 18 who does not fulfill the requirements for a service dog. The team includes a third member, generally a parent or caregiver, who is responsible for the safety of the team as well as giving commands and managing the dog. The facilitator must live with the recipient. The recipient is responsible for giving praise. The primary benefit for many of our skilled companion graduates is the social bridge provided by the dog: Instead of being the kid in the wheelchair, the recipient is now the kid with the cool dog, explains CCI instructor Angie Schacht. At Canine Angels, assisted service dogs perform the same tasks as service dogs.

Social dogs provide help in the home and in public such as retrieving dropped items and seeking help during emergencies. These dogs also provide emotional support and companionship, especially for children with autism or other developmental disabilities, says Canine Angels’ head instructor Sandy Mays.

Assisted social dogs provide the same benefits as social dogs but are part of a three-person team that consists of the child/young adult, a parent/guardian and the dog.

Canine Angel Pals are obedience trained dogs that provide emotional and unconditional support and serve as a canine best friend. Pals do not work in public but instead help by sleeping in their partner’s room at night, encouraging play and exercise, and helping their partner become more responsible and independent, says May.