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The role of dogs in society
by Horsefeathers. March 3rd 2014, 11:59 PM

The role of dogs in society
By Chess (Syzygy.)

Since their domestication, dogs have proven to be invaluable to human society, from hunting to guarding to providing companionship. They have definitely earned their name as 'man's best friend’, as they are great companions, and they can also be trained to assist people in many different ways. Although the concept of guide dogs is not new, there has been a recent branching out as people have come to understand more about how useful dogs can be. This is especially true for people with disabilities, such as blindness, epilepsy, or even paraplegia. Service dogs are trained to help people with a range of lifestyles and disabilities, from providing help with everyday tasks such as laundry to more specific goals such as recovering from a seizure. There are many different types of roles dogs can play, some of which will be discussed below, and all of which help give people back their freedom and independence.

Assistance dogs
These dogs are trained to assist people with disabilities, ranging from paraplegia to multiple sclerosis. They may help by performing everyday tasks such as opening and closing doors, pressing the button at traffic lights, and retrieving items (for example, getting the person’s wallet from the bench, or picking up clothing they've dropped). There are different levels of assistance dogs which are available to people depending on the type of assistance needed. Companion dogs are especially trained to help around the house, and are often found in homes with children. Facility dogs are found in places such as nursing homes, where more than one person may need assistance, and are therefore companions to many, if not all, of the residents. Service dogs are the ones people are often most familiar with, and they are trained to assist with tasks both inside and outside the house, and are allowed in all public areas (including trains, shops, and schools) so that they can assist the person at all times.

Guide dogs
Most people are familiar with, or at least aware of, the role guide dogs can play in the life of someone who is blind or visually impaired. These are similar to assistance dogs, in that they are assigned to a person and perform tasks for them to help that person gain more independence. They are legally allowed anywhere that the person goes so that they can always provide assistance. Guide dogs are very well trained and highly obedient, and are specially matched to a person so that they will be of most benefit, which helps to ensure that their personalities and lifestyles are compatible. Although there are other types of support for blind people (for example, using a cane), having a guide dog gives them greater freedom and more control over their lives. Many people who have guide dogs declare that their dogs are more than just guides – they are loyal companions, and part of the family.

Therapy dogs
The benefits of pet ownership have been well-established: it can reduce stress, promote feelings of happiness, and even increase life expectancy. However, not everyone is able to own a pet. Barriers may include age, lifestyle, disability, isolation, or illness. This is where Pets as Therapy dogs come into the picture. These dogs are calm and gentle, making it safe to have them around people of any age or ability. Unlike assistance or guide dogs, therapy dogs do not have years of professional training. Most of them are regular dogs whose owners have volunteered their time for the cause. They visit places such as hospitals and nursing homes, spending time with the residents there. The residents may play with, pat, or just sit with the dog, which helps give them the positive effects of having a dog without experiencing the stress of caring for one, which many of these people may be unable to do. The presence of the dogs alone can be beneficial, and talking to the owner during the visit may help the people feel less isolated, thus aiding recovery (in the case of hospitals) or encouraging well-being (in the case of nursing homes).

Reading dogs
This is a less well-known initiative. It began with a United States program called Reading Education Assistance Dogs, and has since progressed to other areas (for example, Story Dogs in Australia). The idea is that children with literacy issues may be able to improve their skills by reading aloud, but may be intimidated to do so in front of a teacher or parent. Story dogs are exactly what they sound like – they're trained to sit quietly while the child reads to them. It may sound silly at first, but initial results have been positive. The natural affinity children have for dogs means that they learn to associate reading with something they enjoy – spending time with a dog. Through this activity they can increase their literacy and gain confidence in a fun and non-judgemental environment. The dog also gets attention and an outing, enriching both the dog's life and that of the children. The owners of these dogs are volunteers who give their time to improve child literacy, and as such they benefit from it as well, gaining a sense of purpose and happiness from helping others.

Seizure response dogs
These are also known as seizure alert dogs or seizure assistance dogs (depending on whether they're trained to predict or respond to a seizure). As the name implies, these dogs are specially trained to assist people with epilepsy or who otherwise suffer from seizures. Most of these dogs are trained to assist after or during the seizure. They may be trained to seek help, to encourage the owner to wake up if they are unconscious, or simply to provide physical (and therefore emotional) support. There has been some success in training dogs to anticipate seizures up to half an hour in advance, and some dogs have even been known to do it without training; however, there has been mixed success with this, and not many organisations currently provide this kind of assistance dog, since it’s unclear exactly how they work or how effective they are. They may be particularly useful for younger children, who may not be able to understand their condition fully and thus will appreciate the comfort and support of a pet dog, who could also help to save their life or prevent injury. Further research and testing is needed to determine whether dogs are suited to this role, and if so, what kind of training is required.

These are just a few of the ways in which dogs have been trained to assist people. Some of these roles require years of formal (and often costly) training, while others can be undertaken by volunteers with their ordinary dogs, as long as the dogs have a calm enough temperament to ensure they’re not a danger to the person. As research and training continues, new ways for dogs to assist people will undoubtedly be discovered, and with them the liberation and joy which such techniques can bring to hundreds of lives.
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