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Dear Savvy Senior
What can you tell me about assistance dogs for people with disabilities? My sister, who’s 58, has multiple sclerosis and I’m wondering if an assistance dog could help make her life a little easier.

--Inquiring Sister

Dear Inquiring
For people with disabilities and even medical conditions, assistant dogs can be fantastic help, not to mention they provide great companionship and an invaluable sense of security. Here’s what you and your sister should know.

While most people are familiar with guide dogs that help people who are blind or visually impaired, there are also a variety of assistance dogs trained to help people with physical disabilities, hearing loss and various medical conditions.

Unlike most pets, assistance dogs are highly trained canine specialists – often Golden and Labrador Retrievers, and German Shepherds – that know approximately 40 to 50 commands, are amazingly well-behaved and calm, and are permitted to go anywhere the public is allowed. Here’s a breakdown of the different types of assistance dogs and what they can help with.

Service dogs: These dogs are specially trained to help people with physical disabilities due to multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, Parkinson’s disease, chronic arthritis and many other disabling conditions. They help by performing tasks their owner cannot do or has trouble doing, like carrying or retrieving items, picking up dropped items, opening and closing doors, turning lights on and off, assisting with dressing and undressing, helping with balance, household chores and more.

Guide dogs: For the blind and visually impaired, guide dogs help their owner get around safely by avoiding obstacles, stopping at curbs and steps, negotiating traffic and more.

Hearing dogs: For those who are deaf or hearing impaired, hearing dogs can alert their owner to specific sounds such as ringing telephones, doorbells, alarm clocks, microwave or oven timers, smoke alarms, approaching sirens, crying babies or when someone calls out their name.

Seizure alert/response dogs: For people with epilepsy or other seizure disorders, these dogs can recognize the signs that their owner is going to have a seizure, and provide them with advance warning, so he or she can get to a safe place or take medication to prevent the seizure or lessen its severity. They are also trained to retrieve medications and use a pre-programmed phone to call for help. These dogs can also be trained to help people with diabetes, panic attacks and various other conditions.

Finding a Dog
If your sister is interested in getting a service dog, contact some assistance dog training programs. To find them, Assistance Dogs International provides a listing of around 65 U.S. programs on their website that you can access at AssistanceDogsInternational.org.

After you locate a few, you’ll need to either visit their website or call them to find out the types of training dogs they offer, the areas they serve, if they have a waiting list, and what upfront costs will be involved. Some groups offer dogs for free, some ask for donations and some charge thousands of dollars.

To get an assistance dog, your sister will need to show proof of her disability, which her physician can provide, and she’ll have to complete an application and go through an interview process. She will also need to go and stay at the training facility for a week or two so she can get familiar with her dog and get training on how to handle it.

It’s also important to understand that assistance dogs are not for everybody. They require time, money, and care that your sister or some other friend or family member must be able and willing to provide.

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