Loyal and affectionate, dogs quickly become an integral member of the family. In return for our care – from vet’s fees to food, and a good pet insurance policy – they give us unconditional love. But assistance dogs are far more than just close companions.
Guide dogs are the ones many of us are most familiar with. There are 5,000 in the UK assisting people who are blind and visually impaired, but there are thousands more supporting vulnerable people across the world every day.
Medical detection dogs, for example, are able to sniff out a range of cancers, while medical alert assistance dogs are trained to detect changes in people with diabetes, nut allergies and dangerous heart conditions that can cause seizures and asthma.
Dogs also aid those who need psychiatric support or are unable to hear, as well as people with autism.
Pet journalist Rachel Spencer (@ThePawPostUK) speaks to Graham Kensett, head of mobility services at Guide Dogs UK (@guidedogs), and Peter Gorbing, chief executive of Dogs For Good (@DogsForGoodUK), to celebrate these dogs’ remarkable work.
Most assistance dogs are Labradors, Retrievers, or a mix of the two breeds – although Guide Dogs UK do use a small number of Alsatians, while Dogs For Good have Cocker Spaniels.
‘They’re well balanced and timid, have an outgoing nature and a keenness and willingness to please their handler and service user,’ explains Graham. ‘They’re able to adapt to different environments, such as busy cities, buses, trains and even planes.’
Being popular and enjoying treats helps too.
‘Labs and Retrievers are very trainable as they’re so food orientated,’ says Peter, ‘and they have a high level of public acceptance.
‘We want our dogs to be connectors, so when they walk down the road, people warm to them and talk to the dog and the person.’
Some assistance dogs open and close doors, activate alarms and switches, pick things up and even use cash points.
Peter shares some heart-warming stories from his clients.
‘One said to me, “If I drop my pen a hundred times a day, I can’t ask my husband to pick it up, but to my dog, it’s a fun game he will happily play all day long.”
‘The wife of a dementia client said she no longer has to nag her husband to get out of bed as the dog goes in, pulls off the duvet and he’s up before he even notices.
‘For children with autism who like the feeling of pressure, a dog simply resting their head on their leg is a physical comfort, and having them by their side makes them feel safe.’
In 1961 Muriel Crooke and Rosamund Bond, trained the first four guide dogs in a garage in Merseyside.
Now, the lifetime cost of a guide dog is around £55,000 and the difference they have made to the lives of 29,000 people is extraordinary.
‘Before having a dog, a visually impaired person may have been used to only going out with a family member or friend, or with a long cane where they identify obstacles and move around them,’ Graham said.
‘The dog anticipates obstacles and guides them around so it’s far less stressful, it promotes independence and develops confidence. Even after a week it’s life changing.’
Dogs For Good has trained up 875 dogs since it began in 1988. One memorable case for Peter, from Dogs For Good, is a man whose wife of 50 years had dementia.
'After he lost his wife he told us very movingly that their last couple of years with their assistance dog were some of the happiest they shared,’ he said. ‘Dogs are powerful connectors and motivate people to go out, engage with old friends and realise life doesn’t have to stop.
‘People often say it’s their reason for getting up – because they have the dog, all kinds of adventures happen.’
We spoke to three people about the special bond they share with their pet.
Joel, 13, from Newquay, was diagnosed with autism aged seven. At primary school he struggled to cope, refusing to write and join in sports, and easily becoming distressed.
He would say, ‘I just want to be like everyone else’. His mum Janet would struggle to get him out of the house.
In 2012, a paediatrician told her about Dogs For Good, and Labrador Caddie came into their lives.
‘Caddie has opened up the world to us and to Joel,’ Janet said. ‘We can go out as a family. Attached to Caddie’s special harness, Joel can’t run off, so I know he’s safe.
‘Caddie is Joel’s constant friend, always by his side. He rests his head on Joel if he feels anxious, or even lies on him, which Joel finds deeply reassuring.’