Lending a Paw
We have all seen guide dogs out and about, but how much do we really know about these four-legged “support workers”?
Service animals can be a great assistance to people living with a disability. Whether that may be with medical assistance, social support or guiding purposes – service animals can improve the lives of people with disability in a lot of ways. Let’s take a closer look at our paw-some friends!
Guide animals, in particularly guide dogs, are perhaps the best known out of the service animals. These dogs help people who are blind or have limited vision to find their way around the house or outdoors. They can also help identifying potential hazards and assist their owners to safely live their day-to-day life.
Becoming a guide dog is not possible for every dog – these guys undergo a rigorous training program from puppyhood, and only the very brightest will ultimately get the role of being a guide dog. They work in extremely demanding situations, so the utmost concentration is required – they are even trained to ignore temptations such as food while being at work! It’s also a costly process – it takes over $30,000 and 2 years to train a guide dog.
Fun fact – did you know many veteran guide dogs can even learn how to navigate to certain destinations through a simple command such as ‘go the office’? How impressive!
Another kind of service animal is the hearing dog. These dogs assist people who are deaf or suffer from hearing loss. Hearing dogs are excellent for this role as they have acute hearing and are trained to identify all types of everyday sounds, such as ringing telephones, smoke alarms, doorbells and alarm clocks.
Hearing dogs are able to distinguish between the different noises, and know when to (or when not to!) alert their owners. Alerting goes through physical contact, and they can even lead their owners to the source of the sound!
Besides guide and hearing dogs for people with impaired vision or hearing, there are service animals who can assist people with physical disabilities, autism, mental illness, or other types of disabilities!
A service animal, such as a service dog, can assist with completing tasks such as opening and closing doors, turning off the light, or alerting their owner when needed. They can also provide physical support with balance and stability, pull wheelchairs and retrieve medication.
In addition to assisting with these day-to-day tasks, service dogs can assist their owners should they have a seizure by raising the alarm, preventing injury by laying next to them or alert their owner to the presence of allergens. Service dogs can save lives.
Fun fact: in some countries, such as the USA, organisations offer animals such as monkeys and pigs as service animals! Monkeys have advanced motor skills and can therefore complete complex tasks such as turning pages of a book or fetching a drink of water complete with straw. Pigs are highly intelligent, which makes them wonderful services animals.
Therapy and companion animals
So far, we have talked about animals helping us in physical ways only – it’s certainly not limited to that. Animals can help soothe and improve our mental wellbeing. In fact, almost any animal can be used for this purpose. From fish to birds, rabbits, cats, and dogs.
Studies have found that children with autism can experience less anxiety when they are around animals such as dogs, cats and guinea pigs. Children are also less likely to withdraw from social situations when they have a companion animal with them. This is a result of the fact that animals accept us the way we are. They are non-judgemental and provide unconditional love.
There are similar effects for adults with autism. The animals can calm someone in moments of anxiety – petting, hugging, or having a dog using their paw to put pressure on a person creates a calming effect.
Animals can improve our mental wellbeing (for all of us, but particularly those with anxiety or depression) by reducing tension and improving our mood. Our furry friends can achieve these results by being loving companions. They have even been found to lower blood pressure and reducing stress hormones. Animals, such as dogs, can also be trained to disrupt impulsive or self-harming behaviour.
Therapeutic horse riding
Designed for people living with disabilities such as cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis and others with a lessened motor function, therapeutic horse riding and equine therapy is another way animals can be of assistance. Horse riding can also help improve mobility, posture and balance, as well as provide a range of emotional benefits.
Would you like to find out more about service animals? The following links may be useful:
- Assistance Dogs Australia: https://www.assistancedogs.org.au/
- Equine Psychotherapy: https://www.equinepsychotherapy.net.au/find-an-equine-therapy-practitioner/
- QLD Government Guide, Hear and Assistance Dogs: https://www.qld.gov.au/disability/out-and-about/ghad