I recently read an article about a girl, Ehlena, and her therapy dog, Wonder. The girl has Cerebral Palsy and has a service dog to help her become more independent at school and life. Her service dog was specifically trained to help Ehlena move from walker to toilet. Wonder is supposed to go everywhere with Ehlena, however, Ehlena’s school barred Wonder from going to school with her claiming that an aid could help Ehlena instead. The ACLU sued the school on behalf of Ehlena and after many years, won the case. You can read more about this story here.
My daughter does not have a service dog, but I imagine that if she did, the dog would become an integral part of her life and the two would be inseparable. This got me thinking about the potential role that service dogs play in the lives of people who have Cerebral Palsy. After doing some research on-line and making some phone calls, I found a few snippets about the role that service dogs play, how they are trained and how to apply to get a service dog.
For people with Cerebral Palsy, a service dog primarily fulfills the job of assisting with balance, however, the service dog may have other functions depending on the need. The dog may help with opening doors or retrieving items. For balance assistance, the dog can be used to help with transfers (from walkers to toilets, from wheelchair to chair etc.) The dog can also assist with helping someone get up after they have fallen and is trained to assume a certain position in order to get the person up off the ground.
Assistance Dogs International (ADI) is a coalition of not-for-profit assistance dog organizations. Assistance dog organizations that pass ADI’s comprehensive accreditation become ADI member programs, and are regularly assessed to ensure they meet the high standards expected.
The purpose of ADI is to:
- improve the training, placement, and utilization of assistance dogs
- improve staff and volunteer education
- educate the public about assistance dogs
- advocate for the legal rights of people with disabilities to be partnered with assistance dogs
Good service dogs are expensive to train and the way that they are trained is quite important. Karen Pryor is a leading trainer who uses the positive reinforcement method to train dogs. Upon completion of her training program, trainers get a certificate that shows their commitment to training dogs using the positive reinforcement method.
In Virginia, there are only two ADI certified centers and they are:
- Service Dogs of Virginia at www.servicedogsva.org
- Saint Francis Service Dogs at www.saintfrancisdogs.org
To get a service dog, there is an application process and a period of time where the dog is trained according to the needs of the recipient.
Disabled people, regardless of their disability, who have a service dog say that their lives are greatly enhanced due to the special bond they form with their service dog. I think that people who train service dogs have a calling - their jobs make the lives of people with disabilities better everyday - something to be thankful for this season!