No Animals Were Harmed® - An Inside Look
An Inside Look at Helper Animals
Assistance animals. Therapy pets. Guide dogs. No matter what capacity they work in, animals are helping people in some pretty amazing ways.
By Jennifer Acosta Scott
Medically Reviewed byJennifer Garcia, DVM
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It’s been said that animals have a sixth sense, and that’s especially true of Candice Escandon’s dog, Chiper. Escandon, 26, has epilepsy, and Chiper is trained to warn her right before she has a seizure.
“She will pop up and get in my face and swipe at me if I’m already sitting to let me know,” says Escandon of her German Shepherd-coonhound mix. “Or if I’m standing up, she’ll get up and try to knock me down, to get me to sit down.”
Escandon, who lives in Orlando, Fla., says Chiper was trained at Canine Partners for Life, an organization in Pennsylvania that readies service dogs. However, Chiper’s ability to sense oncoming seizures is innate, and not something that every dog can be taught to do. "It's honestly about whatever dog that has the gift to do it," Escandon says. "They believe that we [people] give off a scent before we have a seizure that dogs can pick up on. Before I got her, they had me send a pair of clothes I had a seizure in so she could smell it."
In the Service of People: Assistance Dogs and More
Chiper is just one example of an assistance dog or helper animal — an animal that is trained to assist a person with a disability. Also known as service animals, they learn to assist people with many kinds of needs. Some are dogs for the blind or other guide dogs, including those who help people who are deaf — assistance dogs that are able to alert people to a ringing telephone, doorbell, or smoke alarm, says Michelle Cobey, resource support coordinator with the Delta Society, an organization dedicated to promoting the benefits of service and therapy animals.
Service animals are primarily dogs, but Cobey is aware of other pets working in this capacity, including a service cat trained to alert the owner to sounds she can't hear, miniature horses, goats, and even a parrot that helped a woman with a panic disorder by pushing a phone toward her so she could call for help. Monkeys can be trained to help people with paralysis or other mobility disorders. “Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, any animal can be a service animal if trained to perform work," explains Cobey.
Some canines work as therapy dogs, providing companionship and comfort to people in hospitals, nursing homes, and other care facilities. Though they provide a needed service, therapy dogs do not fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act, so they do not have the right to be in all public places like service animals or dogs for the blind.
A Higher Level of Animal Training
Most helper animals go through rigorous training to learn how to assist their owners with their disabilities, Cobey says. Some people obtain their assistance dogs or other animals through organizations that raise and train animals for this specific purpose, while others use private trainers or self-train an animal that they already own. However, not every animal has what it takes to be an effective therapy dog or helper animal. “It’s based mostly on temperament,” Cobey says. The Delta Society has a document on their that outlines the minimum standards that service dogs should meet before they begin working.
No matter what capacity a helper animal serves in, these special pets all have one thing in common: making life easier on their owners. Escandon says Chiper enables her to live more independently, and even helps her to keep her infant son safe. “With her being able to alert me to seizures, I can put my son in his bassinet or crib and have him be safe while I have a seizure,” Escandon says. “I know enough in advance so I can prepare. She’s a blessing in my life, and in my family’s life.” For more information on obtaining a service animal, visit the Delta Society’s Service Animal Trainer Directory.
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