How the Dogs Can Help

“Dogs have basically one purpose in life, and that is to make us happy. They’re very easy to teach,” says Canine Assistants founder Jennifer Arnold, author of the new book “Through a Dog’s Eyes” and the subject of a PBS documentary by the same name.


From the time they are newborns to about 18 months old, the golden and Labrador retriever mixes at Canine Assistants are prepared to be service dogs. They can open doors, turn on lights, tug off a child’s socks or push a button to call 911.

A lot of them can sense a seizure before it happens, and go get help. Many of the dogs can even push dirty clothes into a washing machine and take clean clothes out of the dryer with their paws.

While the tasks are impressive, Arnold and others tell that the truly magical thing about assistance dogs is what they do for a child’s spirit. Just by being there, the creatures are able to make a child’s feelings of fear, isolation and loneliness disappear.

“They look at you with such admiration,” Arnold says of the dogs. “Over time you start to feel worthy of that, and that’s very different from how a lot of times you feel about yourself when you have to rely on other people for help.”

Why the Children Are There
That first day of training camp, Arnold asks each recipient to tell the group why they want a service dog. The mother of a boy that doesn’t speak says she hopes a dog will be a calming presence, especially at airports. A little girl from California, paralyzed on her left side from a stroke, tells Arnold she wants a dog to help pick things up and get help if she has a seizure.

A young woman who is paralyzed from the waist down wants to take her dog to college. Billy tells Arnold that he falls down sometimes and needs help getting up. His dog will come with him to school, and be his friend.

Canine Assistants provide the dogs at no cost to the recipients. It will pay lifetime food and veterinary care for every dog it places, if the family needs it, and recurrent training. Canine Assistants usually require a high school or GED diploma. If you want to become a dog trainer it may also be wise to take and pass the CLEP (College Level Examination Program) and get a related degree.

Billy listens dutifully, but he really just wants to pet the dogs. At the first break, he rolls his wheelchair to the cages lined up along the wall, pokes his fingers through the grates and touches their soft fur. He stops at the cage of a dog named Dell and scratches the dog’s head and ears through the bars. The dog lifts his head in approval.

It will be another 24 hours before Billy learns which dog will be going home with him to Ohio.

What To Expect
The training period will be a stressful two weeks, Arnold warns the families. There will be quizzes every morning, a final exam, lectures about dog behavior, and lessons on feeding, grooming, and house training. During the matching process, more than one child might fall in love with the same dog.

“Everybody thinks that they basically are coming to pick out their dog. The secret is that the dog picks the person,” Arnold says.

And despite their 18 months of training, the dogs might not obey the children’s commands.

“Don’t get frustrated with the dogs because they’re not doing what you want them to do,” Recipient Services Coordinator Judy Moore-Padgett warns the group. “You haven’t earned their love.”

That will happen soon enough.