Written by: Alison Laurie, Senior Consultant, Crown Vets Inverness
We are aware of the amazing service that police dogs and detection dogs provide for society and of the service that guide dogs provide for the blind and partially sighted, also of the aid that hearing dogs offer for the deaf and the hard of hearing, and of the valuable and practical support provided by assistance dogs used to aid disabled people.
In addition, there are also other support dogs who work hard every day visiting, supporting and helping the sick, elderly and vulnerable across the country.
Over thousands of years, man has developed a unique, close social bond with dogs. Through our domestication of the species, dogs over the years have learned to adapt their behaviour to our own lifestyles and they have now become the species of animal we would chose when it comes to assisting the more vulnerable members of our society.
Dogs have been used for assistance and healing purposes for a long time, they help us in so many different ways, increasing our confidence by offering us a rare unconditional love. This loyalty and close bond provides the vulnerable in our society with a new found improved quality of life, independence and protection and helps their owners build confidence, so enabling them to deal with lifetime situations that may be difficult or unfamiliar, depending on their personal disability.
Extensive research has shown that even the presence of a dog around us can have an automatic positive impact on our physiological and psychological well-being and so in turn help to reduce stress levels.
Stroking a pet has been proven to actually lower blood pressure and the heart rate, resulting in a natural calming effect from this simple, gentle action. Therefore, in this way, dogs may be used to provide a positive emotional support as well as providing a useful, functional, practical service to many vulnerable people.
Assistance dogs also support patients in hospitals, and they also visit retirement and nursing homes, hospices, schools, colleges and universities, and even courtrooms to offer a stabilising, calming effect.
Just by being by their side these dogs enable vulnerable people to interact with others in a way that they would normally otherwise feel unable to do due to personal medical or psychological and emotional problems.
Often the breeds used are the same as those found commonly working as guide dogs with a known even temperament, such as labradors, golden retrievers and spaniels.
These breeds are chosen because they are generally sociable and more receptive to training. They all share the one most important attribute for a healing dog, which is a good, reliable, even disposition. They should be reliable, relaxed, approachable and adaptable, be easily trained and also love being handled.
It does take years of dedicated training to prepare these dogs for their special individual jobs. These dogs need to be very well socialised with a mixture of different people and animals and in a variety of different life situations. Socialisation is started from the time of birth when the young pup is with the breeder. Basic obedience and the more specialised training and socialisation will commence when the young pup is ready, generally from six to ten weeks of age.
After the puppies have been socialised and they have had their basic puppy training from the breeder, they are then transferred to an experienced puppy carer or puppy "walker “for a further period of intense training and socialisation, generally until they are about a year old. This carer is often a volunteer and they are chosen to dedicate the many hours required to work with the pup to complete the next vital part of their specific training programme. Then, when ready and fully trained, the dog is matched with an appropriate person who requires the emotional or physical support. This matching is done with careful regard to the individual dog’s temperament and to the specific requirements of the individual person that the dog will eventually be working with.
So from this we can see that dogs can be much more than just pets to us in society. Also our own pet dogs themselves can give us so much back. We have already noted that research has shown that the presence of a dog can have a positive impact on our own physiological and psychological well-being. So at times of stress or illness in all of our lives, our dog companions can be there for us, giving us that unwavering loyalty and unconditional love and there is nothing else quite like it.