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The Guide Dogs Who Work Two Jobs

May 13, 2015

There are guide dogs, and there are assistance dogs but, to help people who are blind as well as physically disabled, some dogs are trained to be both.

Tony Brown-Griffin from Kent uses her guide dog Hetty to help her get her children to and from school, to attend community events and do other day-to-day tasks. As well as being registered blind she has epilepsy and has, on average, one major seizure every week.

Hetty’s second job is as a seizure alert dog and she is able to predict episodes exactly 42 minutes before they happen, letting her owner know by persistently resting her head on her knee. If she doesn’t respond the dog will begin to paw her left leg. The aim is to give her enough time to find a safe place before the onset of a seizure.

Hetty’s training was a partnership between Guide Dogs for the Blind Association and Support Dogs UK who provide dogs for various medical conditions. She learnt both roles simultaneously – having guide dog training early morning and late afternoon, and seizure alert training in the middle of the day.

While dog and owner were getting to know one another during training, Brown-Griffin was having up to 30 major seizures a day – a baptism of fire for young Hetty.

Seizure Alert dogs are trained to pick up minute physiological changes. It’s not clear whether the dogs pick up scent or visual clues but it’s likely to vary between owner. It takes two years to train them, including at least 12 months with their handler.

Brown-Griffin has two daughters aged eight and 15 who both have autism. She is grateful to Hetty for saving them from the trauma of seeing their mother have a seizure. “I can be cuddling one of my girls, when Hetty will let me know that I am going to have a seizure, and I can make sure my girls are safe,” she says.

She feels very lucky to have Hetty and since getting her has even taken up her favourite pastime of horse riding again. She rides in half-hour bursts, checking in with Hetty to make sure her next 30 minutes will remain seizure free.

Having two important jobs feels like a lot of work for a dog but Tony says she knows that if Hetty didn’t like it, she simply wouldn’t do it.

In Devon, visually impaired Steph Read, who is also a wheelchair user, puts her money in a purse just the right size for her dog Vegas to get her mouth around.

The dog, a black Labrador retriever, takes the purse, puts her front paws up on the counter, and hands it to the cashier. When Read gets the purse back, the dog receives a treat.

Read then picks up the guiding handle that the dog wears on her back, and is carefully led out of the store.

When back at home, Vegas does not need to guide, she is an assistance dog only. She takes clothes out of the washing machine or tumble-dryer, and assists Read by grabbing and pulling clothing to help her undress. She also picks up objects and opens doors.

Vegas is one of only 27 dogs trained by the Guide Dogs association, in partnership with other canine-training organisations, to do two jobs.

“Life wasn’t worth living before I got Vegas,” says Read who had been housebound for 18 months before the dog came to live with her. At that time she didn’t have enough carers coming in to take her out and says she didn’t see anybody or go anywhere. Though she was doing a degree in psychology through distance learning, she felt very isolated.

Before she was given to Read, Vegas had 19 weeks of training with the Canine Partners organisation where she learnt how to provide physical assistance. The pair worked together for two years before Vegas went away to add to her skill set by doing a further 28 weeks to become a qualified guide dog too.

Standard guide dogs are trained to walk around obstacles, find doorways and steps, refuse to cross roads if there is oncoming traffic, and make sure owner, and dog, will fit through narrow gaps.

But as a dog with dual purpose, Vegas’ training goes further. For instance, when out on a walk, she has to judge whether there’s a big enough gap between a kerb and an obstacle for a wheelchair to get through. If she thinks there isn’t, then she must refuse to go forward. A poor decision by the dog can mean disaster for Read as a wheel could slip into the road and tip her out of the wheelchair. If this happened she wouldn’t be able to get back up again.

Out of the 27 dual-trained guide dogs, 21 are trained as hearing dogs which let their hearing-impaired owners know about sounds like a ringing telephone or a crying baby, and one seizure alert dog.

Research carried out by Guide Dogs into the stress levels of dual purpose dogs showed none of the usual signs of stress like skin disease. Tim Stafford from the organisation says many of the tasks performed by dual dogs play to their natural instincts and behaviours and the dogs find them intrinsically rewarding. He says the training is all about maximising their natural response.

Read recently recognised that 11-year-old Vegas wasn’t responding as enthusiastically to her guiding duties, but was still enjoying her assistance work, so Steph has taken the decision to semi-retire her. She is now looking forward to meeting her second dual role dog Rusty in June and to Vegas becoming a much-loved pet.

One Comment leave one →
  1. rainbowwarriorlizzie permalink
    May 13, 2015 3:57 pm


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