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You and your Dog: How dogs assist humans with special needs to enjoy a better quality of life

22 July 2020

Photo by Elias Castillo on Unsplash

By Yvonne Eland

The bond that is formed between the human and the dog is based on complete trust, respect and love.

There is always a lighter side to life and for most special needs children and adults it is having the assistance of their very own service dog.

I need to just mention here – many very ordinary family pet dogs can be trained by the parents of a special needs child, with the help of an animal behaviourist, to assist them with certain duties, such as helping to walk with a child who has difficulty with movement.

Adults with special needs and especially the elderly can also be assisted by a service dog. I  had the pleasure of experiencing a rescue dog from the SPCA who was adopted by an elderly gentleman.

This dog was very hyperactive when she attended her first few lessons at dog school. The gentleman had great difficulty with movement, but it did not take long for this dog to realise that she should not pull on her leash, and soon she was adapting to her owner’s walking pace and they were able to walk in harmony together.

The dog just fell into her role, assisting the owner to enjoy a relaxed stroll at his own pace. The owner of this mixed breed had many years of experience in training dogs, so under his careful guidance she was quick to learn.

Children with disabilities often become withdrawn and even with encouragement from the parents, have very little or no self-confidence in movement/walking. They tend to rather sit and play a game or read a book, which is not a healthy situation as the child needs to get exercise.

Once these children are teamed up with a dog of their own, they will be more confident, the dog will act as both a means of support (the dog can be fitted with a specially fitted harness which the child can hold onto for support) and protection.

Children with cerebral palsy spend far less time playing or participating in physical activities than other children. These children are often seen as a “health disparity group” meaning they will face many health-related challenges, throughout their lives. This is where a dog is an invaluable source of help.

If a child with cerebral palsy is given the responsibility of caring for a dog, e.g. brushing or playing fetch, the child will be using both hands to brush the dog, when playing fetch, he will also be exercising the muscles in both hands, and when throwing the ball for the dog to fetch will be exercising his body and his mind, while having fun.

The bond between dog and child becomes very strong. The dog and child will form a partnership and they can engage in supervised activities, such as walking the dog. As the partnership and physical challenges grow, there is usually a marked improvement in the emotional state, social and physical health of the child.

EPILEPSY affects millions of people around the world, and service dogs are invaluable for people with this disability. These dogs will alert a person of an imminent seizure, up to an hour before the seizure presents itself. This gives the individual time to take the proper precautions, such as lying down or leaving crowded environments.

The dog’s ability to warn the person ahead of time will help to prevent the person becoming injured by perhaps falling down, or walking across a busy street and becoming involved in a serious accident.

These dogs are able to find help, or assist their human partners during and or after a seizure.


Where children are concerned, the dog will alert a carer or family member that a seizure is imminent. The dog might begin to bark, run to the carer and begin to paw at her. The carer who has been trained to react to these behaviours will immediately return to the child. The dog will usually remain with the child during and after the seizure.

Fetching a telephone, panic button or medication before the seizure begins will alert the individual of an imminent seizure. Opening a door or turning on a light could warn the human of an impending seizure.

The bond that is formed between the human and the dog is based on complete trust, respect and love. The formation of this bond grows stronger between the two partners, and a powerful means of communication is formed between them.

Sadly, many people with epilepsy do not want to venture away from home for fear of having a seizure while in town, so their lives are very solitary. However, having a dog who can warn them of an impending seizure will bring about amazing changes, both socially and emotionally.

Breeds that are most recommended to be trained as alert dogs, include Labradors, golden retrievers and poodles. These breeds generally have very good temperaments and are intelligent and placid. Hyperactive dogs are not considered as potential seizure alert dogs.

Some interesting facts regarding seizure alert dogs:

Only some dogs have the innate ability to detect imminent seizures.

No one is 100% sure of how exactly alert dogs are able to detect an oncoming seizure, however, it is believed that they do this by detecting a change in the scent that is being emitted from the individual, prior to a seizure (once again the dog’s incredible nose beats medical science).

Dogs that are able to detect oncoming seizures are then trained in the art of alerting their human partner who will have time to better prepare themselves.

Both adults and children with epilepsy avoid certain everyday activities, for fear of having a seizure in public. A seizure alert dog can help people with epilepsy to feel more empowered, to take on their day to day activities and help them stay safe in the event of an oncoming seizure.


All these dogs will have to be fully obedience trained and will also have completed a course in advanced service dog skills.

Only dogs that have the innate ability to detect an imminent seizure will be trained to be alert dogs in order to assist an individual with epilepsy.

Once a dog has been proven to have the ability to detect an imminent seizure,  alerting behaviours by the dog will be encouraged through positive reinforcement. The dog is not taught the behaviours – they are natural and will only be reinforced.

Once the dog has completed training, both the dog and human will attend special training sessions together.

If the dog is going to be paired with a young child, the parent or carer will attend the classes accompanied by the child. No children under the age of 12 years will be given a dog without a parent or guardian to supervise the pair. Usually dogs who are paired with little children will alert the parent or carer that the child is going to have a seizure.

Although this brief article might not be relevant to you personally, you might see things in a different light when you next visit your local coffee shop, and are about to complain about a customer with his companion dog. These dogs are responsible for the lives of their human partners.

Most public places are very accommodating, to people with special needs and their dogs, which are intensively trained and well mannered.

Source: South Coast Herald



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