Assistance Animals: Right for Your Child?

by Melanie G. Snyder

Mom, can I get a puppy?” may be the most commonly asked question of childhood. For a child with special needs, the question, and possible answers, can be life-changing.

Animals that are “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability” can legally be designated assistance animals. The animal must be trained to perform tasks that are specifically related to the person’s disability. Companion animals and pets don’t qualify.

There are three types of assistance animals. Guide animals assist blind or visually impaired people. Hearing animals help the deaf or hard of hearing. Service animals assist people with other physical or mental disabilities. The term “service animals” is also sometimes used generically to apply to all types of assistance animals.

Dogs are the most common assistance animals, though miniature horses can be trained as guide animals and monkeys can be trained as service animals.

What Can They Do?
The International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (IAADP) has identified more than 100 tasks that assistance dogs can be trained to perform.

For example, guide dogs can help avoid obstacles, signal changes in elevation and locate objects on command. Hearing dogs alert their owners to sounds the owner can’t hear, including ringing telephones, smoke alarms, doorbells, approaching vehicles, car horns and crying babies.

Service dogs can retrieve objects, perform tugging tasks such as opening doors, removing shoes and clothing, or dragging heavy items. They can perform nose nudging or pawing tasks like flipping light switches, nudging a paralyzed arm or leg back onto a wheelchair or closing doors.

They can provide bracing or mobility assistance, such as moving a wheelchair, providing support to go up or down stairs or providing balance for standing and walking.

Service dogs can also be trained to assist in a medical crisis by fetching medication or the telephone, calling 911 or other pre-programmed numbers on a K-9 Rescue Phone, answering the door to let emergency personnel in and barking for help in an emergency.

For people with autism, service dogs can provide calmness, reduce emotional outbursts and provide a positive social link. Service dogs can also be trained to assist people with seizure disorders.

For More Info

Assistance Dogs International (ADI) maintains a registry of trainers who adhere to the organization’s standards for assistance dog trainers. PO Box 5174, Santa Rosa, CA 95402, 707-571-0427, info@adionline.org, www.adionline.org
Autism Service Dogs of America, 4248 Galewood St., Lake Oswego, OR 97035, info@autismservicedogsofamerica.com, www.autismservicedogsofamerica.com, info@autismservicedogsofamerica.com

Delta Society maintains a database of assistance animal trainers, searchable by state. 875 124th Ave. NE, Ste. 101, Bellevue, WA 98005, 425-679-5500, info@deltasociety.org, www.deltasociety.org

Guide Horse Foundation, PO Box 511, Kittrell, NC, USA 27544, 252- 433-4755, info@guidehorse.com, www.guidehorse.org

Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled, 541 Cambridge St., Boston, MA 02134-2023, 617-787-4419, mail@monkeyhelpers.org, www.monkeyhelpers.org

International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (IAADP) offers information on assistance dog selection and training, relevant laws, legal resources and assistance dog groups. 38691 Filly Dr., Sterling Heights, MI 48310, 586-826-3938, helpline: 760-439-9544, iaadp@aol.com, www.iaadp.org

Loving Paws Assistance Dogs – Special Dogs for Special Kids, PO Box 12005, Santa Rosa, CA 95406, 707-569-7092, info@lovingpaws.org, www.lovingpaws.org

Who Can Benefit?
According to the Delta Society, “any person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity might be a candidate” for an assistance animal.

To assess whether an assistance animal could help your child, the Society offers these questions.

How difficult are activities of daily living?

Will your child have better stamina if he can conserve energy by having the animal perform tasks?

Would having an assistance animal help your child get more physical exercise or be more mobile?

Would an animal help socially by being a distraction from your child’s disability, or help externalize her focus of attention?

Would the animal’s presence alleviate some of your safety and well-being concerns if you cannot be with your child all day?

Would your child eat better if the animal carried the food from the refrigerator, or if you synchronized their meals?

Your child’s age is a critical factor. Due to the responsibilities involved in handling and caring for an assistance animal, training organizations that serve children generally have minimum age requirements.

“It is hard to get a dog to respect and work for a child under the age of 11 as a ‘partner,’” says Joan Froling, Chairperson of IAADP. “A parent has to be the primary handler of a dog for a child under age twelve.”

Programs that do provide dogs for younger children often require a three-way partnership with the parent, the child and the dog, and will require both parent and child to participate in training.

Key Considerations
Carefully evaluate your child’s desire, motivation and ability to care for an assistance animal. Consider the potential impact on your family’s lifestyle and daily routines.

Ask yourself if you would adopt another 3-year-old child right now. If not, don’t get a dog. That’s the level of commitment you need,” advises Linda Jennings, President of Assistance Dogs International.

It can take 2-3 years from the time you start investigating until you have a trained assistance animal in the home, working for your child.

Training can cost $10,000 to $20,000 or more. Some training organizations cover these expenses through grants and donations, and provide animals at no cost to the recipient. Some charge nominal fees to cover certain expenses, and others charge more substantial fees.

Costs can sometimes be offset by insurance reimbursement, scholarships, financial assistance from trainers, and grants from civic organizations or foundations focused on your child’s diagnosed condition.

The Process
Application and screening for assistance animals is usually rigorous. Organizations want to make sure the child, not just his parents, wants the animal, as well as whether the family can provide proper care and a good home, and if the animal is appropriate for the child’s disability.

Once an assistance animal is obtained, the first month is typically a trial period to check for compatibility with the primary handler. If the animal acts aggressive or menacing in any way, it is time to look for a new one.

“Once the family has gone through the class and graduated with a dog, it will take approximately one more year for the team to bond and really begin working well together,” says Jennings. “The family needs to be committed to following through with this process in order to get the most out of the dog.”

Assistance animals are not for everyone. However, with careful research, preparation and training, an assistance animal can offer your child new functional independence, better community integration, greater social acceptance, heightened psychological well-being and increased self-esteem.

An assistance animal can also reduce the level of human assistance required, which may result in savings in health care and other care-giving costs.

Melanie G. Snyder is a freelance writer.