Thursday 26 January 2023

Amazing medical alert and assistance dogs - trained to save lives

Animal lovers already know that many creatures, including dogs, have the power to calm and de-stress humans, and they can often sense our moods. But some can do something even more amazing. 

With training, they can detect a potential medical episode or emergency before it begins, giving enough time to alert the person to take preventative action. They can also be trained to provide valuable support to those requiring physical or emotional assistance.

There are different types of training depending on what type of assistance the dog will provide. 
Broadly, these are the three types of support dog:

Assistance dogs provide support for various conditions, including Autism, where they are trained to
provide a sense of safety and reduce stress in social environments. Below, you can read about the rigorous process for training dogs to ultimately become assistance dogs, and how they help to keep their owner safe.

Medical alert dogs are trained to provide a reliable alert for those who experience potentially dangerous medical conditions, such as epileptic seizures, for example. Some can even detect various types of cancers from a urine sample.

Disability assistance dogs help people with physical limitations and disabilities, as they are trained to
perform specific tasks.
Training an assistance dog can take up to two and a half years, and most animals are acquired and trained by special charities that rely on donations.
In the UK, Helpful Hounds, Support Dogs, and Medical Detection Dogs are all charities that provide
training and support for the identification and training of dogs, and for their future owners.

The journey to becoming an assistance dog

Puppies destined to become assistance dogs are identified at a very young age. Pups need to be sociable and confident, as well as enjoy human interaction. They must also be healthy and active.
Some charities have volunteer breed stock holders who own special breeding females whose pups are temperamentally suited to assistance. They live with a volunteer family at home, and are mainly
Labradors, Golden Retrievers and Working Cocker Spaniels, as these breeds are well suited because they love to carry and retrieve, and are happy to work with people.

Puppies are trained from a young age to become an assistance dog

Aged around 8 weeks, the puppy is placed with a volunteer puppy socialiser who looks after him for the next 18 months. As well as the usual responsibilities of looking after a growing puppy, the socialiser begins to develop the pup's training. They are socialised, are acclimatised to meeting different people, and learn to become comfortable in different environments.

At around 14-18 months of age the youngsters move to a training centre, where they begin to learn tasks such as walking next to a wheelchair, and picking up dropped items and handing them back. It is here that the matching process with a potential owner begins. The dogs get plenty of 'downtime' where, just like any dog, they can play, run and interact with other dogs.

During advanced training the dog will learn to meet the specific needs of the person for whom he'll
provide support, and also learn to feel comfortable with that person. He or she needs to learn that
mobility aids are part of the owner's needs, to retrieve items on command, to provide an alert if the
owner requires it, and help with, for example, dressing or getting up.

Some dogs help support children with Autism, and learn how to distract the child during behaviour that a parent wants to interrupt, helping the child to focus and stay calm in a challenging environment.

There is ongoing support through a transition period of settling into a routine with the new owner, to help to develop this lifelong partnership.

Image (c) Medical Detection Dogs

Dogs who will be used for medical detection are trained to employ their incredible sense of smell to
identify minute changes that indicate a particular medical episode (for example an epileptic fit or a
diabetic coma) is imminent. By alerting the owner, he or she can take preventative action to avert danger.
Again, long and specialist training is required to ensure that the dog's scenting skill is accurate, and that mutual trust exists between dog and owner.

Service dogs come in all shapes and sizes

All of these dogs are highly skilled in specialist areas, using their amazing senses to support people, and providing valuable help as well as being much loved and loyal companions.