Need to Know: The Go-To Guide

Companion Dogs

By
From the April 2011 edition
We know them by a variety of names: companion dogs, pilot dogs, seeing-eye dogs, assistance dogs. But whatever title they go by, these remarkably smart, well-trained animals have a very important job - to make the world a more manageable place for their human partners.

This month, Columbus Parent's Go-To Guide looks at companion dogs - who trains them and who uses them - because these canines are an integral part of many special lives in Central Ohio.

WHAT'S A COMPANION DOG?
At Canine Companions for Independence , a non-profit national organization whose North Central Regional Center is located in Delaware, carefully bred and trained dogs (Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers or a mix of the two breeds) are matched with individuals who have disabilities.

Only about 40 percent of the dogs, who are bred in California, make it all the way through training to become a companion dog; temperament and medical problems are the usual reasons for release from training. Those that don't are called "release dogs" and are adopted, often by police and fire departments or government agencies for detection work.

A companion dog works for about seven to 10 years before retiring (into adoption and a comfortable, non-working life).

WHAT DOES A COMPANION DOG DO?
The dogs are trained to perform one of four roles:
  • Service Dogs: help independent adults perform tasks like opening doors, retrieving objects, turning lights on and off.
  • Skilled Companion Dogs: work with a child or adult who has an able-bodied adult partner.
  • Hearing Dogs: help the hearing-impaired by alerting them to sounds like doorbells, a baby's cry or an alarm clock.
  • Facility Dogs: work with an able-bodied adult who is a professional caregiver or educator for disabled individuals.
HOW IS A DOG TRAINED?
  • At the age of 8 weeks, a puppy is placed with a volunteer puppy raiser.
  • Until about the age of 18 months, the puppy raiser teaches the dog a variety of skills and commands. The puppy raisers pay for all of the dogs' care.
  • The raiser hands the dog over to a training center where, for the next 6 to 9 months, the dog learns up to 50 commands.
  • When this training is complete, dogs are paired with their future partners during a two-week Team Training period.
  • At the end of the training period, a graduation ceremony is held, symbolically passing the dogs from their puppy raisers to their new partners.
HOW DOES SOMEONE GET A COMPANION DOG?
Laurel Marks, a spokeswoman for Canine Companions, said there is a two-year wait, on average, for a companion dog from their organization.

Disabled individuals receive the dogs for free after applying to Canine Companions, which raises money from private sources and
corporate grants. The new partners assume the costs of care for their dog.

After receiving a dog, the new partners receive follow-up support services and must participate in ongoing training.

WHO CAN BE A PUPPY RAISER?
Puppy raisers are a special breed themselves! Canine Companions' center in Delaware benefits from the services of more than 130 puppy-raising households in a 14-state region. Many are families with children.

Leslie Young of Galena Township decided to raise her first puppy six years ago and is now on her fourth.

"I had just lost my pet dog and I just love puppies, who doesn't?" Young said of her decision to become a puppy raiser. "But now I sometimes wonder who's learning more - me or the puppy."

Young estimated that paying for all of a puppy's food, medical and transportation costs has cost about $1,000 for each dog; some of these costs may be tax-deductible as charitable contributions.

The toughest part of being a puppy raiser, said Young, is handing the puppy over when his early training period is over: "It's something you know and agree to, going in, but it's hard."

The graduation ceremony at the conclusion of each two-week Team Training period is a very emotional event. The puppy raisers present the new partners with scrapbooks from their dog's puppy days, and a slide show honors the puppy raisers and the time they spent with each dog. Then the puppy raiser formally walks their dog up to the stage and hands him over to the new partner.

WHO DO COMPANION DOGS HELP?
Though companion dogs originally were best known for helping the visually impaired, they now are used to help people with a wide variety of physical, developmental and emotional challenges. Some of these challenges include: spinal-cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, autism spectrum disorders, Down syndrome, spina bifida, arthritis, cerebral palsy, hearing and visual impairment. Companion dogs also are used with patients in medical rehabilitation and psychiatric programs, and residents of assisted-living facilities.

Derek Maher, 16, and his mother Janine Maher have welcomed companion dog Ilene into their Lewis Center home. Derek, a sophomore at Olentangy High School, has a muscle-degenerative disorder.

"One of the biggest things is the companionship aspect," said Mrs. Maher. "We're going to try to teach her a 'go get Mom' command."

Derek said his mother had been planning to get him a companion dog for quite a while.

"She knew a boy who had Duchenne muscular dystrophy like me and he had a dog," Derek said, then turned to ask his mother, "Is he in college now?"

"I think he just graduated from Wright State," Mrs. Maher replied.

HOW DO I ACT AROUND A COMPANION DOG?
If the dog does not belong to you, you should always ask his human partner first what would be appropriate. If a dog becomes used to being petted by others, it could distract him from doing his job and jeopardize the safety of his partner.
 
You should also never feed a companion dog: They have specialized diets that they need to stick to in order to maintain a healthy weight.