A new campaign to celebrate assistance dog trainers, volunteers, puppy raisers and users launched today to mark the start of International Assistance Dog Week (#IADW2022).
Thousands of staff and volunteers all over the world dedicate their lives to breeding, training and placing assistance dogs to change the lives of their users by helping with practical tasks, enhancing independence, and boosting well-being, dignity and confidence.
“Everyone loves an assistance dog, and quite rightly the dogs tend to take centre stage,” says Chris Diefenthaler, executive director of Assistance Dogs International (ADI). “International Assistance Dog Week is a chance for us to recognise and celebrate the people at the other end of the leash – those who devote their time and expertise to ensuring ADI certified assistance dogs are trained and work to the highest standards.”
“Our member programs all over the world rely on a small army of breeders, puppy raisers and walkers, kennel workers, trainers, fundraisers, behaviour experts and vets. Even so, demand is increasing and there is always a waiting list,” she adds.
ADI is the world’s leading standards-setter and accreditation body for training assistance dogs. In 2021, ADI’s 144 member programs had more than 11,000 puppies in training and over 27,000 active teams, including guide dogs, hearing dogs, medical alert dogs, mobility service dogs, autism dogs, dementia dogs and PTSD dogs. Nearly 9,000 potential clients are on a waiting list for an ADI certified assistance dog.
“ADI members play a key role promoting disability rights and access to health and social care, employment, education, transport, hospitality and public spaces. Many are at the cutting edge of research and innovation in specialist fields such as behavioral science or genetics. None of that would be possible without the people at the other end of the leash,” says Diefenthaler.
International Assistance Dog Week (#IADW2022) runs 7 to 13 August 2022. Among those being recognised are volunteer trainers such as Penaran Higgs, who trains dogs for Dog AID UK and who runs her own behaviour consultancy PetShrink. “Every dog and every client are different, so you have to be able to adapt and work with each one in a way that suits their needs,” says Pen. “The bond between a dog and their owner is really special and it’s lovely to watch.”
Being a puppy raiser can be a bitter-sweet experience. Dr Andrea Vernall, a volunteer puppy raiser with Mobility Assistance Dogs Trust in New Zealand, admits it was a wrench to see mobility dog Dalton move on. “Even though we knew from the start that Dalton was not going to be our puppy forever, it was still sad when he left us,” says Andrea. “But the fact that he was moving on to the next stage in his training and will go on to help transform someone’s life made it worthwhile.”
While some bigger ADI members employ dozens of full-time staff, most – such as Animas in Portugal –are run wholly by volunteers. “After the puppies leave the breeders, our dogs live at home with host families and later with the instructors until they are delivered to clients,” says Animas President Abilio Leite. “When they are delivered there are many tears. After a while, you begin to get a sense of the happiness that our dogs provide, and we feel that all our effort is being rewarded.”
Whatever the circumstances, helping to train an assistance dog comes with its own rewards. Michelle Likin, an inmate at the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women (KCIW), helps train service dogs for ADI member Paws with Purpose.
“It’s given me a life worth living. I now have a job that I love to do, while giving back and helping others. I can take the skills that I learned in KCIW and use them to teach others. This has given me a confidence that I’ve never had before. I wake up in the morning knowing that I believe in myself and am enthusiastic about life. That is such a change from my past,” says Michelle.
Rhonda Keuben, who lives with multiple sclerosis (MS) and has difficulty balancing, now holds the leash of assistance dog Groovy, who was trained by ADI member PADS. “He stands beside or behind me and it works perfectly,” says Rhonda. “People don’t stop and stare at me any more – but they do stop and look at Groovy!”
“The stories of the people at the other end of the leash show the huge difference a properly trained assistance dog can make,” says Diefenthaler. “It’s great to be able to celebrate both dogs and people during this year’s International Assistance Dog Week.”