Sunday, September 21, 2008


This week, Helpful Buckeye has turned the keyboard over to me, Desperado, so that I can share some information on Therapy and Service Animals, a topic that captured my interest (and my heart) several years ago.

You see, in 2005, my 82-year-old mother transitioned from living independently to being a resident in a nursing home. Her mind was sharp, but her rapidly deteriorating physical condition necessitated around-the-clock nursing care. A few weeks after she was admitted to the nursing facility, Mom told me about “Luke,” a gentle black Labrador Retriever who came to work at the complex every day with his owner, Vickie. Luke would make the rounds with Vickie, visiting residents in their rooms and in central gathering areas.

Folks loved to talk to him, feed him healthy pet snacks, play “fetch” with him, and, of course, stroke his silky coat. Mom would tell me about Luke’s latest visit, what color of neckerchief he was wearing that day, and what his owner Vickie was up to. Every time we visited Mom, we would marvel at Luke and Vickie: How they brightened everyone’s day with warmth and laughter.

Then one day Mom was in tears when she answered her phone. Luke had died very suddenly from a brain tumor. The residents and staff shared Vickie’s grief. Many times, Mom talked about how much she missed Luke. In fact, on the last day of Mom’s life, in March of this year, she mentioned Luke.

For Mom and all of her pals in the care facility, Luke was more than a dog. He was a friend. And often, that’s what someone needs the most. James Taylor captured these sentiments beautifully in his hit from the 1971:


The terminology and definitions associated with therapy and service animals can get a little confusing. Here are the basic distinctions:
1) Service animals are legally defined in the Americans With Disabilities Act (passed by Congress in 1990), and are trained to meet the disability-related needs of their handlers who have disabilities. Federal laws protect the rights of individuals with disabilities to be accompanied by their service animals in public places. Service animals are not considered "pets."
2) Therapy animals are not legally defined by federal law, but some states have laws defining therapy animals. They provide people with contact to animals, but are not limited to working with people who have disabilities. They are usually the personal pets of their handlers, and work with their handlers to provide services to others. Federal laws have no provisions for people to be accompanied by therapy animals in places of public accommodation that have "no pets" policies. Therapy animals usually are not service animals. Mom’s friend Luke was “therapy dog.”
3) Companion animal is not legally defined, but is accepted as another term for pet.
"Social/therapy" animals likewise have no legal definition. They often are animals that did not complete service animal or service dog training due to health, disposition, trainability, or other factors, and are made available as pets for people who have disabilities. These animals might or might not meet the definition of service animals.

Service animals, usually dogs, can be further defined by the types of roles they play with their handlers: They can be Guide Dogs, Hearing Assistance Dogs, or Mobility Assistance Dogs. Each type of dog can perform a wide variety of tasks. For example:
1) Guide dogs take directional commands and institute a path of travel, indicate changes in elevation, indicate and avoid oncoming traffic, navigate around obstacles and locate and retrieve objects on command.
2) Hearing dogs are schooled to alert to the specific sounds needed by their partners, primarily in the home setting. Some hearing dogs also work outside the home, alerting to specific sounds in the public settings. Instead of barking, hearing dogs are trained to get the attention of their human partner by touch, (either a nose nudge or pawing) then the dog leads the partner to the source of the specific sound.
To learn more about hearing dogs, check out This remarkable organization rescues dogs from animal shelters throughout Oregon, Washington, and California, and then trains them to assist the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Hearing dogs are trained to alert to the sounds of fire/smoke alarms, telephones, door knocks, doorbells, oven timers, alarm clocks, and name calls. In some cases a dog may be trained for the cry of a baby.
3) Mobility assistance dogs are trained to assist people who have a wide variety of mobility impairments. Some teams have mastered up to fifty tasks. The lists of tasks in this section are a broad sampling of what tasks can help to empower, reduce or avoid pain, minimize dependency on loved ones, prevent injuries, or get help in a crisis:
Retrieve based tasks
Carrying based tasks (non retrieval)
Deposit based tasks
Tug based tasks
Nose nudge based tasks
Pawing based tasks
Bracing based tasks
Harness based tasks
Medical assistance tasks
Crisis assistance tasks
Seizure Alert Dogs, Anxiety Disorder Alert Dogs, Autism Assistance Dogs, Special Needs Assistance Dogs
A perfect example of this type of aid from a trained dog occurred on 10 September in Phoenix, AZ:

There are numerous ways that service dogs can be trained to help those that have hidden disabilities such as a seizure disorder, autism, a psychiatric disorder, a potentially life threatening medical problem, or conditions that cause chronic pain.
Click here to watch a compelling video of therapy animals at work, enhancing the lives of so many people: The video is found on the Home Page of The Delta Society, a non-profit organization that we’ll say more about later in this blog.


1) It turns out that there is a growing trend across the country to include pets of all kinds in the daily lives of people in nursing homes and senior-living communities. Dogs, cats and rabbits are roaming the halls and visiting residents, parakeets are chirping from cages in lounges and common areas. And even a kangaroo is hopping around the halls of a care facility in Salt Lake City. See a great picture of Marlee, the kangaroo and Paul, a resident at the Silverado Senior Living Community, by clicking here:

Most of the creatures in senior communities are "resident pets" or "community pets" either owned by staff members who bring them to work, or rescued from shelters to live in the facility full time and spread their love to all who reside there. Some are animals that residents brought with them.
Just a few years ago, directors of these facilities were reluctant to allow resident pets because of potential risks from bites and scratches, allergies, and liability issues. But today, research shows that those issues are overblown. In fact, negatives are far out-weighed by the positives such as these:

  • Pets are all-accepting, whether you are in a wheelchair, unable to see or hear well, or unable to talk.

  • They add excitement and spontaneity to daily lives which are often too routine.

  • They help to relax and calm residents who are agitated.

  • They draw out shy and reserved residents.

  • They give residents a focus for attention other than themselves and their own infirmities.

2) In fact, new research shows that owning a cat may cut your risk of heart attack death. So say researchers at the University of Minnesota, as reported in September 2008 AARP Magazine. During a ten-year study they found that “owners of cats were 40 percent less likely to die from a heart attack than their catless counterparts.” Feline companionship appears to reduce stress and anxiety, which are known to be harmful to the heart in many individuals. Studies on dog owners have shown similar beneficial effects.
An innovative approach to linking the elderly with pets who need loving homes is promoted by the nonprofit group, “Pets for the Elderly.” This Ohio-based organization pays up to $50 of the adoption costs—fees, medical exams, spaying or neutering—when people 60 or over adopt a dog or cat from one of 58 animal shelters in 31 states. Read more about this unique program at

3) One of the pioneering organizations to understand and promote the important bond between humans and animals is the Delta Society. It was founded in 1977 in Portland, Oregon, under the leadership of Michael McCulloch, MD. Delta's first president was Leo K. Bustad, DVM, PhD, dean of a veterinary college and a pioneer in human-animal bond theory and application. Delta's founders wanted to understand the quality of the relationship between pet owners, pets, and care givers, both human and veterinary, (hence the "delta" name based on this triangle). In the 1970s, pets were widely considered luxury possessions, not of central importance to individual health and well-being. Delta's early years focused on funding the first credible research on why animals are important to the general population and specifically how they affect health and well being. Early Delta members were primarily from the veterinary and human health professions and from university faculties.
Once the importance of animals in everyday lives was established from this research, Delta began to look at how animals can change the lives of people who are ill and disabled. In the late 1980s, Delta began creating educational materials to apply the scientific information in everyday life. Membership expanded to pet owners and a broader general public.
In the 1990s, Delta built on its scientific and educational base to provide direct services at the local level. This includes providing the first comprehensive training in animal-assisted activities and therapy to volunteers and health care professionals. A significant advance was the development of the Standards of Practice in Animal-Assisted Activities and Animal-Assisted Therapy, which provides guidance in the administrative structure of AAA/T programs, including animal selection, personnel training, treatment plan development, documentation and more. Use of the Standards of Practice in Animal-Assisted Activities and Animal-Assisted Therapy provides a sound base on which to build quality AAA/T programs.
One of Delta's strengths continues to be the development of standards-based training materials. They identify subject matter experts and work with them to create, pilot and revise, and then implement training. Using this process, The Delta Society is creating a comprehensive service dog trainer curriculum. In 2001, they published Professional Standards for Dog Trainers: Effective, Humane Principles, that provides guidelines for all dog training developed by Delta Society.
Visit Delta Society’s web site to learn more about the important work they are doing.

4) Even pet “celebrities” are getting into the service animal arena. The adorable Uno, the first beagle ever to win the coveted Best in Show Award at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in February, just completed a six-week training course for pet partners. Sponsored by the Delta Society mentioned previously, Uno’s training took place at the ASPCA in Manhattan with an ASPCA Therapy Dog Trainer, Michael Siegel. "From the moment Uno entered the training area, I felt he would be an excellent therapy pet," says Siegel. "Not because he's so adorable to look at, but because of his relaxed body language, his bright, alert eyes and his ability to acclimate immediately to new surroundings." Siegel also keenly observed Uno's affinity toward humans. "He initially focused on the handlers in the room, and secondarily on the dogs."
Read more about Uno’s graduation at


5) More animals, especially dogs, are training to be service animals for disabled veterans. The American Service Animal Society is a nonprofit organization based in Arizona, dedicated to enabling disabled veterans to live a more productive life through the use of service animals.
On their website at they state their mission and objectives:
“We at American Service Animal Society are a caring supportive, headstrong team that are dedicated to improving the liberties of the disabled. We envision a world in which disabled veterans are able to lead a happier and healthier life through the use of a service animal. We realize the need to improve awareness and education to the public as a whole. Together with your support and donations, the service animal team can succeed.”
The ASAS does not actually buy or train dogs. Rather, they do the following:

  • Provide the funding for a disabled veteran to be partnered with a trained service animal

  • Assist the disabled veteran in the selection of a qualified trainer and appropriate service animal

  • Monitor the progress of the disabled veteran and his or her dog

  • Support the disabled veteran as much as possible in caring for the service animal

  • Rescue service animals, re-partner when possible or find the animal a good non-service home

If you live in Arizona, check out WOOFSTOCK, their fundraiser coming up on November 15, 2008.
The Great Chandler Arizona Dog Walk

Bring your "Furry Friend" and walk to help disabled American Veterans!
Woofstock is a benefit to help fund the American Service Animal Society. Through donations we fund Service Animals for disabled American Veterans. This event will have 3 walking routes of different distance, food, vendors, exhibits, and a whole lot of FUN!
Saturday, November 15, 20088 AM to 12 PM

6) Several innovative programs exist that train prison inmates to train service dogs. Read more about Puppies Behind Bars, where 30 female inmates at several prisons in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut help train service dogs to assist disabled people, including veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. This is clearly a winning situation for everyone--and every puppy!

From the Gmail Bag…
We love to hear from our readers. Please email us at We usually respond directly to you by return email, but sometimes a question has broader appeal. We recently received this request from CJ in Kansas:

Dear Helpful Buckeye,
I would like to begin training dogs to be service animals. I’ve read a lot of websites that say only golden retrievers can be trained. Do you agree? Can you give me some additional information on this? CJ

Dear CJ: In case you haven’t checked out the web site of Service Dogs America, please give it a look. It is one of the best sources on how to train your own pet to be a service animal: Here are some FAQ’s from Service Dogs America that speak directly to your question:

What breeds make good Service Dogs for physically disabled people?

The short answer is Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers. Of course, there are exceptions. Dogs from the working group are easy to train but tend to be protective. Field dogs tend to be more interested in their environment than people. Small dogs can't pick up large objects or pull wheelchairs. Large dogs are difficult to put under a table at a restaurant or out of the way on a bus or plane. A good Service Dog is not protective, is people-oriented, is not overactive, and is confident but not dominant or submissive. Service Dogs should not require complex grooming.

What breeds make good Hearing Dogs?

Since most Hearing Dogs are rescued from shelters, they tend to be mixed breeds. They come in a variety of sizes, shapes and colors. The great majority of Hearing Dog applicants request small- to medium-sized dogs, so most Hearing Dogs tend to be the size of a Sheltie or smaller. In addition to size, personality and temperament are important in a Hearing Dog. They must be energetic and ready to work in an instant. They must be friendly and people-oriented. Because of these requirements, a lot of Terrier mixes are used, along with various combinations of Poodles, Cocker Spaniels, Lhasa Apsos, Shih Tzus and Chihuahuas.

Why shouldn't a Service Dog be protective?

A Service Dog's job is to make disabled individuals more able, not to protect them. The dog's presence is a natural deterrent. Because disabled people take their Service Dogs into public places and many are not able to physically restrain their dogs, the Service Dog must be safe for the public. Many dogs, especially working breeds, will sense their owner's disability and vulnerability. These dogs can learn on their own to protect at inappropriate times. This problem can be compounded by people who don't recognize that they are unconsciously encouraging this behavior.

Can you recommend any books on assistance dogs and people with disabilities?

Here a just a few of the books available:
Teamwork I & II by Top Dog in Tucson, Arizona;
Partners in Independence by Ed and Toni Eames;
Lend Me an Ear by Martha Hoffman;
Moving Violations: War Zones, Wheelchairs and Declarations of Independence by John Hockenberry;
Life on Wheels: For the Active Wheelchair User by Gary Karp;
Planet of the Blind by Stephen Kuusisto;
Waist-High in the World: Life Among the Non-Disabled by Nancy Mairs;
Chelsea: The Story of a Signal Dog by Paul Ogden

How do I get my dog certified as an assistance dog?

Currently there is no national certification available for assistance dogs.

What are the benefits of certification?

Since there is no standard certification process, this would vary with the organization you chose. Some programs offer a thorough certification process that can take two or more years and could include training classes, field trips and in-home instruction. In addition to being able to take pride in what you and your dog have accomplished, as a "certified" graduate, you might receive the program's identification card and dog equipment; you may also personally train your dog to accomplish your own specific needs.


Helpful Buckeye has already discussed the Labrador Retriever in the 7 September issue.

Golden Retriever--Originally developed to retrieve downed fowl during hunting, the Golden remains one of the most common family dogs as they are easy to handle, very tolerant, happy and friendly. A low-maintenance dog, Goldens thrive on attention, regular exercise, a balanced diet, and are usually compatible with all people and other dogs. While they typically bark when startled, their friendly nature generally makes them poor watchdogs. Goldens are valued for their high level of sociability towards people and willingness to learn and are often used as guide and search & rescue dogs. And, of course, as the name indicates, the Golden loves to retrieve. Retrieving a thrown stick, tennis ball, or flying disc can keep a Golden occupied and entertained for hours.

A Final Thought
I really enjoyed learning more about service and therapy animals. In addition to the great organizations I’ve spotlighted here, there are many more that promote the therapeutic interaction between humans and animals.
Most of these organizations are non-profit. They rely heavily on donations to continue their good works. Helpful Buckeye and I have found that these are great organizations to donate to in memory or in honor of friends and loved ones. When my Mom passed away, several of our relatives donated to Dogs for the Deaf in her memory and I am sure Mom would be very happy with that donation.

~~The goal of this blog is to provide general information and advice to help you be a better pet owner and to have a more rewarding relationship with your pet. This blog does not intend to replace the professional one-on-one care your pet receives from a practicing veterinarian. When in doubt about your pet's health, always visit a veterinarian.~~

1 comment:

  1. What a great article, and so much information!