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Paw-tential helpers around us
Written by Sejung Park | Published. 2021.11.20 15:36 | Count : 556


In a world where the pet population has grown to as large as 17 million, pets have become notable members of many families. Dogs are in the lead, cuddling in at 33% of the pet population, followed by cats, rabbits, and birds. [https://www.pfma.org.uk/pet-population-2021] However, in addition to bringing joy to families, some bring extraordinary help to people with special needs. 


For example, there are assistance dogs. The most commonly known assistance dogs are guide dogs, which are trained to help visually impaired people navigate their daily lives. Chosen based on their temperament and trainability, Golden Retrievers, Labradors, Standard Poodles, and German Shepherds are the breeds most likely to be in service. Even though regulations deny animals access to public spaces, many countries have legal exemptions for guide dogs so that they can accompany their handlers to public places. Some dogs help people with hearing impairments as well. These dogs notify their owners of common sounds that they find hard to hear, such as doorbells.


Some dogs can perceive when someone is having a medical issue, such as a seizure in people with epilepsy (a central nervous system disorder) or blood sugar changes in people with diabetes. One common type of assistance dog is a seizure dog, which is trained (or learn) to respond to a seizure in someone who has epilepsy by barking or somehow alerting others when that person is having or about to have a seizure. Some are even trained to lie next to someone having a seizure to prevent injury. Although seizure dogs cannot replace medical support for nighttime supervision or direct monitoring by a physician, they can be trained to activate some kind of pre-programmed device, such as a pedal that starts an alarm, to alert others in case of an emergency.


There are also some dogs that help with psychological emergencies. A psychiatric assistance dog (PAD) is a service dog trained to assist people with mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, or bipolar disorder. Known as therapy dogs, they are different from emotional support dogs (ESDs). Unlike ESDs, which are not necessarily trained to provide assistance, PADs are trained by qualified trainers or the people who will become their owners, while other assistance dogs are trained exclusively by assistance dog provider organizations. PADs help people of all ages whose lives are compromised by mental health problems access public spaces. They can be of any breed or size suitable for helping people in public places, traveling with them, and taking part in social activities.


[Image of description board attached to a therapy dog’s home, Photo by Sejung Park]


Another example of how animals can help people with special needs is animal-assisted therapy (AAT). This originates from disciplines such as psychology, sociology, and psychiatry and dates back to ancient Greece, where people used companion animals to help them overcome physical or mental illnesses. For example, the Greek doctor Hippocrates believed that horseback riding was relaxing and had therapeutic value in treating incurable diseases. These days, companion animals such as dogs are used to help patients with medical conditions cope with their illnesses and motivate them to improve their quality of life. Dogs are most often used in therapeutic programs in hospitals, where the presence of animals can diminish feelings of fear and aggression, enhance social skills, and reduce stress. During an AAT session, patients take a break from their rigid hospital lives and share their hope and joy with animals. Interacting with their four-legged friends can keep patients active, promote self-care, and enhance physical well-being. These therapeutic programs involve tasks required to take care of animals, such as feeding, grooming, and bathing them. In other cases, the animals are brought to facilities (such as hospice facilities, hospitals, and nursing homes) so that patients there can interact with them. These treatments are recommended for children with autism, at-risk adolescents, senior citizens, and people with neurological disorders. It is said to be so effective that even prisons use therapy dogs to reduce violence, anti-social behavior, and aggression. Participating in these sessions can improve self-esteem while developing compassion, patience, and trust. The assisted activities and therapies that animals provide are based on the link between humans and canines, for example, with the dogs acting as facilitators and motivators. [https://therapet.org/about/what-is-animal-assisted-therapy/]


[Image of therapy session with therapy dog before COVID-19, Photo by Sejung Park]


There are many situations where animals can provide assistance to people living with a disability. These animals are often identified by wearing a colored jacket, harness, or bright collar and leash. I hope that awareness of assistance dogs improves soon, which is why I wanted to convey the importance of assistance dogs and the many roles they play in our lives.










Sejung Park

Grade 12

Daegu Namsan High School

Sejung Park  hsr@dherald.com

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