Support Roles for Dogs Go Beyond Helping the Blind

It's not just the blind that trained dogs are helping these days.

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When Ken Altenburger lost his sight due to complications from diabetes, he began to rely on a cane to assist him with getting around. Eventually, he decided it was time to get a guide dog.

That dog gave him more confidence than he had as an exclusive cane user. Another perk, he found, was that he enjoyed the companionship. 

“You don’t feel so alone,” said Altenburger, who now works for the nonprofit that matched him with all three of the dogs he has used over nearly two decades. 

That nonprofit, the California-based Guide Dogs for the Blind, has been training dogs to help people affected by vision loss for 70 years. Altenburger, who was matched with his latest dog, Jabari, earlier this year, is one of more than 2,000 sight-impaired people currently using dogs trained by the school. 

But it's not just the blind that trained dogs are helping these days. Service dogs now assist those who are deaf, those who are prone to seizures and even children with autism, along with many other jobs. Beyond those roles, dogs are being used to comfort grieving families at funeral homes, calm traumatized witnesses in courts and lower stress levels of law students going through final exams. One nonprofit, Puppies Behind Bars, recruits prisoners to train dogs to help wounded war veterans. 

“Dogs have a unique ability to sense when people are in need,” said Lutheran Church Charities President Tim Hetzner, whose group began using comfort dogs as part of its disaster response work after Hurricane Katrina. “Dogs show unconditional love. .... When people pet a dog, it lowers their blood pressure, they feel more relaxed and they feel more comfortable discussing what’s going on, particularly in crisis situations.”

While dogs have assisted their owners, both with and without disabilities, for centuries, it wasn’t until the 20th century that the concept of a service dog was commonly accepted.

Guide dogs assisted many German soldiers who lost their sight in World War I and The Seeing Eye, the oldest operating guide dog school in the world, was founded in New Jersey 1929. But the expanded concept of a “service dog” was not formally established until the latter half of the century, due to the work of former special education teacher Bonnie Bergin.

Bergin’s intent when developing the service dog concept was to help people with mobility issues, such as quadriplegics. The animals have several characteristics that make them a good fit for helping people, she said. 

“Dogs seek dyadic relationships, meaning they seek partnership with one other being,” said Bergin, who, in addition to starting her own canine studies institute, helped officials work service dog protections into federal law. “It fits their psychological drive. They love working. It gives them a purpose.”

The skills and benefits service dogs can bring to a situation go beyond loving their companions and work, experts say. John Moon, director of client programs and community engagement at Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans, said that dogs offer unique benefits to people with hearing loss.

“If you remove that [hearing] device, say to take a shower, then you’re more vulnerable than at any other time of day,” said Moon, whose organization trains black and yellow Labrador retrievers, including some potential candidates from local shelters. “The dog can hear a knock on the door, can hear the tea kettle go off.”

The know-how to alert the owner to things that matter -- and ignore sounds or other stimuli that don't -- must be taught. Service dogs undergo a disciplined training regimen to prepare them for the responsibilities ahead. Wrangler, a service-dog-in-training who is sharing his journey with NBC's "Today" show, is going through a 16-month program with the New York-based Guiding Eyes for the Blind that includes quarterly "Walk and Talk" evaluations and field trips to introduce him to public transportation and crowded city squares. 

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Wrangler appears on NBC News' "Today" show.

"As part of Wrangler's socialization and journey to become a guide dog, it is important for him to experience new places, sights, sounds and experiences on a regular basis," handler Saxon Eastman told

Even with a structured program and set goals, the guiding philosophy behind training is often simple. Bergin, who founded the Bergin Institute of Canine Studies in California, an accredited institution that offers associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees in canine studies, got her start training dogs in the 1970s using the same teaching methods she used when educating children. 

“Dogs are very similar to humans,” she said. “Positive methods are the best way.” 

While emotional-support dogs, commonly known as comfort or therapy dogs, are not considered service dogs and are not protected under the ADA, proponents say they can also make a big difference in the lives of those they aid. 

The Lutheran Church Charities' K-9 Comfort Dog ministry, for example, uses about 90 golden retrievers in nearly two dozen states, to assist people in need. 

Each golden retriever in the LCC program has its own Facebook page, Twitter profile, email address and business cards. Hetzner said people often communicate through the dogs’ social media as if they are human counselors, and LCC staff can assist clients directly that way. Children, in particular, are more willing to talk to a dog than a person when they are distressed, such as when a classmate has taken his or her own life.

The helping effect dogs can have on children was also confirmed by Vicki Murphy, chief advancement officer and director of transitional youth services at Casa Pacifica Centers for Children & Families, which serves abused, neglected and emotionally and behaviorally challenged youth.

Children who would normally not talk to clinicians would start opening up due to the dogs’ presence, she said. Children with reading difficulties would start reading to the dogs. When one dog had open-heart surgery, the children learned responsibility by holding a fundraiser to cover the cost, and the possibility of him not making it led to conversations about life and death.

“These kiddos have already experienced so much loss,” Murphy noted.

Casa Pacifica uses Newfoundland dogs, because they are “so large and loving."

"The kids get a real sense of being able to hug something. And they’ll hug you back," Murphy said. “Every child should experience joy at least one time a day.”

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