Helpful paws

Over the past few years, the activities in which service animals, especially dogs, are trained to assist people with mobility impairments have expanded drastically. ASTRID DE LA REY learns more

It’s now become the norm for our fluffy friends to be trained in anything from assisting diabetics and children with autism to those with visual impairments or with limited mobility.

The great thing about assistance dogs is that it’s not a one-size-fits-all scenario. Each dog is trained to help its owner with their specific needs. This can range from picking up dropped items such as cellphones, bringing the phone to the owner when it rings, opening and closing doors, getting the light switch, alerting someone if the owner is in trouble, pulling a wheelchair or carrying a shopping bag – in other words, all those frustrating things that can sometimes be impossible to do when you’re a wheelchair user.

Many people are understandably hesitant to commit to an assistance dog, mainly because they’re not sure how they’ll be able to care for them and are afraid that the animal will be a burden. Well scratch that thought immediately! Training for assistance dogs and their owners has improved tremendously over the last few years. A great deal of focus is placed on finding the perfect owner/dog match, followed by proper training based on the specific needs of the owner. You and your dog will be “trained” together and will receive lots of support during your first months together until you’re both completely comfortable.

It’s still a work in progress, but assistance dogs have become a much more common sight in South Africa and are allowed (just about) everywhere. Speak to someone who’s had an assistance dog for a while and you’ll be amazed by how much independence they’ve gained. Assistance not only helps you physically in your daily life, but the animal can be a tremendous source of comfort and security.

If you’re unsure whether you’re suited to – or will benefit from – an assistance dog, the best place to start is the Guide-Dogs Association of South Africa (www.guidedog.org.za). They source and train dogs for all purposes. They have loads of information as well as testimonials on extremely happy and successful owner/dog partnerships and it really is worth reading some of these inspirational stories.

At the end of the day, we could all use a little extra help. And if it comes in the shape of four paws, furry ears and unconditional love, it can only be a winning solution.

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