In the middle of the night, the brown Labrador Hanni wakes up her master. She wildly licks Thorsten Habel’s face and pinches the 43-year-old slightly in the thighs. Just in time. Two minutes later, Habel’s tongue and throat begin to tingle. Anaphylactic shock is on the way; a strong allergic reaction, which can be fatal, it is not treated in time. Once again, the six-year-old dog lady has saved her owner’s life.
Habel has been struggling with anaphylaxis for almost 17 years. What exactly triggers the dangerous shocks remains unknown. Habel must then inject himself with medication as quickly as possible. The problem: Most shocks occur at night. That’s why he brought Hanni into his life.
For four years now, the has been accompanying him at every turn. Their most important task: sound the alarm and retrieve vital medications as soon as anaphylactic shock is imminent. “Without Hanni, I probably wouldn’t be alive anymore,” says Habel.
The art of assistance dogs
Hanni is an assistance dog. This means that she has learned special skills to help her owner in everyday life.
Warning dogs, i.e. dogs that detect epileptic seizures, hypoglycaemia (hypoglycaemia) or asthma attacks at an early stage and warn their owners or alert help, are a special feature. Unlike guide dogs for the blind or mobility assistance dogs, four-legged friends cannot be trained as warning dogs – they are born as such.
The assistance dogs recognize epileptic seizures, asthma and Co. by the decreasing oxygen saturation in the blood, through which the breathing speed of humans varies minimally. Based on this change, the four-legged friends hear that something is wrong with their owner. “About 0.3 percent of all dogs have this ability,” explains Petra Köhler, dog trainer at the German Assistance Dog Center in Mainz. “Many don’t even know if they have a warning dog at home until they find out by chance.” In addition, the then smells the shock on the basis of released stress hormones, especially cortisol, even before the first symptoms appear.
At Köhler, the dogs strengthen how to warn their owner in the event of an emerging seizure: by nudging the hand or leg, putting on the nose or licking the hand.
Other specialists of the assistance dogs are the allergen display dogs, which indicate their human by nudging or laying on the nose when he is about to consume a highly allergenic food for him.
The well-known assistance dogs also include the guide dogs for the blind, which take over the sight and guide their master or mistress safely through a park or a crowd; or the mobility assistance dogs, which mainly live with wheelchair users and help them in everyday life to tie shoes, close doors or pick up fallen objects.
|Diabetic warning dogs||Guide dogs for the blind||FAS Assistance Dogs (FAS = Fetal Alcohol Syndrome)|
|Epilepsy warning dogs||Signal dogs for the deaf||Autism Dogs|
|Asthma warning dogs||LPF Assistance Dogs (LPF = Practical Life Skills)||Dementia Assistance Dogs|
|Migraine Warning Dogs||Mobility Assistance Dogs|
|Stroke warning dogs||PTSD assistance dogs (PTSD = post-traumatic stress disorder)|
There are a number of different assistance dogs. These are also called specialties.
The training: human needs translated into dog behavior
How long the training lasts depends on the dog and the needs of his future mistress or master. If the four-legged friend has already completed previous training, which means that he masters basic commands such as walking on foot, sitting and space, it is faster. The way to the ready-to-use assistance dog usually takes a year or more.
In principle, self-training is possible, in which the owner trains his future four-legged partner himself under the guidance of an experienced trainer, or someone stranger takes over the dog training (external training). The training of the dog is tailored to the needs of the future owner: Where does he need help in everyday life and how can this be translated into dog behavior?
In their training, the assistance dogs learn how and when to carry out their tasks. A mobility assistance dog may only retrieve objects for masters or mistresses that have fallen down and do not indiscriminately bring everything possible. A warning dog should discreetly report an impending allergic shock, for example by putting on the nose instead of barking loudly, so as not to disturb other people. At night, however, it sometimes has to be more rabid to get the owner awake.
Training a good assistance dog is not cheap. After training in the dog school, which did not yet bring the desired success, Hanni had to learn her tasks with another dog trainer. Habel paid 13,000 euros for the dog school alone – costs that health insurance companies have not yet covered.
It took another year for the dog-human team to get used to everyday life. Habel still remembers his first shock with Hanni exactly: “Out of sheer excitement, she brought me her cuddly toy instead of the medication”. A mishap that has remained an exceptional case to this day.
The Golden Rule of Assistance Dog Training: Learning through Success
Positive reinforcement, i.e. learning through success, is the most important mechanism in the training of dogs. If something works well, the trainer praises the four-legged friend immediately, with the voice, treat or toy.
The principle is the same for every assistance dog training: a highly complicated task is broken down into many small learning steps. These steps are all trained individually with the dog. After each subtask, a more difficult one takes place. Thus, the dog reaches an ever higher level of learning.
The brain stores this as a sense of achievement and the dog has fun reaching a new, more difficult level. “The training is a complex process that requires a lot of concentration and patience from the dog and me,” explains Sabine Häcker, who works as a veterinarian and volunteer as the first chairwoman of the association Hunde für Handicaps e.V.
“It can be compared to building with Lego bricks: at the beginning there are many small Lego bricks (the subtasks), over time a whole figure is created, such as a spaceship (the execution of a skill).”
The suitability: Which dog can become an assistance dog?
In the association Hunde für Handicaps e.V. mobility assistance dogs are trained. Their primary task is to retrieve items for wheelchair users that they cannot access. When the dogs are one year old, veterinarian and dog trainer Häcker starts her training.
“Not every young dog is suitable as a companion for a wheelchair user,” says the expert. The animals must first pass strict aptitude tests under the watchful eye of the trainers.
First and foremost, the dog must be healthy. “If a dog has an undetected illness or pain, the task puts too much strain on it. That would be unfair to the four-legged friend,” says Häcker.
The right temperament is crucial
In addition to physical health, the character of the dog is crucial. He should enjoy doing something with people and learning. To do this, he needs a stable being, which means that he must be calm, not very frightened and must not be so easily distracted.
The Biotonus Test
Petra Köhler works at the German Assistance Dog Center in Mainz with aptitude tests for assistance dogs. In this way, she checks, for example, in the case of allergen display dogs, whether the dog can sniff out smells well and whether he basically enjoys this task. To do this, the four-legged friend must smell a scent, such as an oil, in closed cans.
Labrador Hanni should actually be trained as a guide dog for the blind, just like her siblings. But due to her temperament, she is completely unsuitable for this task, Habel reveals about his beloved four-legged friend: “Hanni is a free spirit, she is quickly distracted and makes her own decisions again and again”.
It is important to pay attention to the behavior already in puppy age in order to assess whether the personality of the dog fits the later task, explains veterinarian and dog trainer Sprauer: “We have a responsibility towards the dog. Therefore, it is important to look at how the dog behaves and what gives him pleasure. To force him into a task that does not correspond to him at all would be fatal.”
The needs of the dog also count
If the four-legged friend masters the desired ability, his person is responsible for ensuring relaxation phases. “Time when the dog is allowed to switch off is important for his well-being. This is the only way it can remain operational in the long term,” emphasizes assistance dog trainer Köhler.
Habel is not worried about this with his Hanni. Although the six-year-old dog lady accompanies her owner daily to the office, to go shopping and even as a side seater on air trips – she still remains a normal dog with animal needs. “People always think assistance dogs are like robots. Of course, that’s not true,” Habel clarifies. If Hanni wants to cuddle, play or do nothing, she shows him that and then gets her time out. “Maybe that’s why we’re such a good team: the communication between us is just right.”