Dogs who serve

Did you know that International Assistance Dog Week (IADW) is celebrated each year in August? This annual tribute was created to recognise the devoted and amazing work these canines do for their handlers – assisting them in rising above limitations to live full and productive lives. IADW was established by CEO and author Marcie Davis, a paraplegic for over 35 years. Events organised during IADW honour not only the dogs who provide the service and acknowledge those canines who have performed heroic deeds, but also honour the people who raise and train them.

Types of assistance dogs

Guide dogs

Training dogs to assist the blind has a rich history spanning many years. Dogs were likely used as companions for the blind for centuries, but the first formal training school was set up in Germany during the Great War. The South African Guide-Dogs Association (GDA) was founded in South Africa in 1953 by Gladys Evans.


Labradors and Golden Retrievers are bred at GDA and are raised off-site by puppy raisers. Early training includes socialisation and basic obedience. At about a year old the puppy returns to the GDA training centre and begins formal guide dog training with a trainer. Training takes between six and nine months. After the final assessment, the dog is matched to a visually-impaired person on GDA’s waiting list. Clients meet and attend training courses at GDA before taking their new dog home.

Hearing dogs

Dogs for the deaf or hearing impaired are trained to assist them by alerting them when a sound is detected.


Sound response training takes between three and six months and starts after basic obedience training. Dogs are trained to respond to various sounds and hand signals. The dog will physically paw or nudge the owner should he hear a sound like the telephone ringing, an alarm clock, intercom bell, someone calling their name, or the alert for an SMS on a cellphone. The dog will also lead the owner to the source of the sound.

Breeds that make good hearing dogs

Many different breeds and mixed breed dogs can be trained as hearing dogs. Even dogs who have been rescued from shelters may be trained. Small- to medium-sized breeds who are alert, energetic, eager to please, willing to work and enjoy human company make the best hearing dogs.

Service dogs

These dogs are trained to assist people with disabilities other than visual impairment and deafness.

  • service dogAssistance dogs are service dogs trained to assist people with disabilities, for example a person in a wheelchair. The dog is trained to retrieve objects, assist with small tasks in the home like putting on lights or fetching a newspaper or slippers, pushing elevator buttons or barking for help. They accompany their owners to public places.
  • Medical alert dogs are trained to alert on a medical condition. For example, a diabetic assistance dog is trained to alert the handler to a possible blood sugar low or high. Seizure alert dogs are trained to alert their owners to an imminent seizure and help the owner to safety. They are able to give an early warning between 10 and 45 minutes before the seizure. They can also assist an owner who is already having a seizure.
  • Autism service dogs are trained to assist autistic children and help them feel secure in an environment which may be strange to them. They provide the children with a degree of independence as well as safety and peace of mind for parents. They are also trained to read repetitive movements and interrupt these.
  • Mental health support dogs work with handlers who have mental disabilities. They are trained to remain at their handler’s side, never leaving him unless told to do so by the handler. They assist those suffering with anxiety or panic attacks to feel more secure when going out in public or even remind their handler to take medication. They are able to assist people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety or mood disorders and others. 

labBreeds that make good service dogs

Labradors and Golden Retrievers are a popular choice, but other breeds have been successfully trained. Smaller breeds can also be trained and may be easier to handle, but this will be determined by the requirements of the handler. A good service dog must enjoy the company of people and should not be overly protective of

Text: Gina Hartoog

The full article appears in the August issue of Animaltalk.


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