Service animals help seniors stay independent

November 30, 2015

By Sara Washington

Marv Tuttle
Volunteer with Canine Companions for Independence

I’ve been injured for 17 years. And I found out about service dogs when I was in the hospital. But being a fairly low level injury, paraplegic, I didn’t think I needed one. You know, because I knew the demand for them was so great that I actually waited for about ten years. And during that period of time I made a lot of friends who were wheel chair users who had service dogs, at similar levels of disability to mine. Who, over a period of time, said ‘Marv you’re wrong, these dogs can do some amazing things for you.’

Maybe a quarter of our applicants are probably 60, 65 years or older. One of the levels of dogs that we train are for the hearing impaired, which would really be a great fit and fix for folks that are of senior age. But I think a lot of seniors are afraid they couldn’t handle a dog. Maybe they don’t have the right setting for that dog to live. They’re afraid they couldn’t afford to take care of that dog properly. There are a lot of things that are a misnomer that I like to help folks understand, ‘No, no, no, no. We have people who live in small, one-bedroom apartments that have our dogs.’

Service dogs would do a lot of the mechanical things that a senior might have trouble doing. Getting up out of a chair, a dog could be trained to help pull you up. A dog could be trained to help stabilize you while you’re walking.

The things he really does for me on a daily basis is that he’ll pick up anything I drop on the floor, on command. Because there are certain things I might not want him to pick up, like a knife.

He’s trained to pull me in my wheelchair. So he’s a puller. So if I have something in my lap and I can’t use both hands to push he will pull me.
All the things that you do in a routine setting with your dogs like eating, drinking, going to the bathroom, all of those things he does all those things on command. He goes to the bathroom when and where I take him so I can control that situation.

He knows how to turn on and off lights, so if I got in bed at night, out of my wheel chair, and I’m all tucked in and reading a book or something, and didn’t want to get the way back out, and into my wheelchair, and turn the light out, he knows how to do that.

Some people have such severe disabilities that, even though the dog would work for them, they can’t handle the dog. Maybe they can’t speak. Maybe they don’t have that hand control to handle a leash and correct. So we train dogs specifically for those folks who have those very severe disabilities. And what happens is that somebody else, a caregiver, a family member, has to be the primary handler for that dog. They’re called “Skill Companions,” but their day to day work is working for that person that has very severe disabilities.

You may be prepared to ask me: what’s my favorite thing that he does for me. And my favorite thing is not any one of those commands, it’s the socialization that he brings. Being a wheelchair user I can roll through a shopping mall, I can roll down the sidewalk, and people, without him by my side, I think intentionally walk by me and don’t even make eye contact with me. People don’t know what to say, they’re afraid they might say the wrong thing, and so they just don’t want to interact with the guy in the wheelchair. Him by my side changes that whole dynamic. I see people from far away coming my way, already with a smile on their face, and they’re looking at my dog. So he’s kind of my icebreaker, if you will.

The decision took me a while to make. Because, like I said, I wasn’t sure now, after I have him, I say “Wow, what a mistake that was. I could have used him so many different ways early on.”

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