Not long ago, guide dogs for the blind were almost the only type of assistance dogs around, but now things have changed and dogs can be trained to help the hearing impaired, the blind, wheelchair bound and bedridden, to name a few.
Some provide therapy for prisoners, burn victims, the clinically depressed or house bound people.
Certain breeds tend to be more useful for these roles than others. The temperament of German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, and a few others make them ideal to be trained as assistance dogs.
Some individual dogs are more keen on training than others. They display not only the ability to perform a simple task on command, but a confidence and eagerness that's essential to the job.
Both the assistance dogs and the trainers receive special instruction for around one year before moving on to the next level. Then perhaps another two years intensive training depending on the particular work the dog will have to be involved in.
Dogs in these programs learn everything from alerting the deaf to a door knock or telephone ring, to fetching containers of food or drink, opening doors, and of course, providing vision-information to the sightless.
A guide dog for the blind may lead their blind companion around obstacles on the street or at the mall. The hearing-guide dog may alert their friend to an oncoming fire truck. The wheelchair assistant may even help the occupant off the floor or into bed.
These very special animals are trained to stay focused in crowds and deal calmly with different environments. Some go to urban areas where they see a curb as a boundary, others find homes in rural areas where they learn that turning on a garden hose is more important than chasing a fox from the property.
Besides the normal sit, stay, come, these working dogs must learn to jump on command, or to deliver a cup of water without spilling it, to a paraplegic. They are trained to turn lights on or off, change the volume on the stereo and bring bags containing medicines. Some are even trained to recognize and react to certain illnesses, or people who may have had a fall. They can even be trained to call for help in an emergency.
For these assistance dogs to be trained in such specialized behaviors can take years of dedicated concentration by both the trainer and dog. Extreme patience and total dedication is required to teach even the most conscientious students.
Dogs learn by cue and repetition. Though they can learn to recognize sounds and grasp simple meanings, they don't possess even a child's basic understanding of language. Teaching them to associate the sound 'water' with 'fetch me a cup' is many times more difficult than for the average toddler.
Yet these amazing creatures, with the guidance of their talented and dedicated trainers, learn to carry out a range of behavior well beyond their peers. So, when you see an assistance dog accompanying its partner, respect the sign they carry that says 'Working. Please don't distract'