More than a best friend

Although we usually associate assistance dogs with people with visual impairment, they are also an invaluable help in many other cases, such as autism and epilepsy

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He’s helping the whole family.” It is difficult to better express the role played by Bruno, the assistance dog who cares for Paula, an 8-year-old girl who suffers from an autistic disorder as a result of Phelan McDermid syndrome. When they received the diagnosis, her parents, Nuria and Enric, started what they see as “an obstacle course”. After learning about cases they had seen in news and documentaries or had known firsthand, they decided to get an assistance dog for Paula. They did it through Discan, one of six approved entities in Catalonia. The process, still ongoing, is a long one. “You want him right away,” Núria says, but “it has to be trained, basic training specifically for children with autism, and then it has to adapt to its new environment.” They tried to speed up the process because their daughter has had to be admitted to hospital three times in recent months. They have been in the final phase for a year and seven months now. At first, Bruno stayed as a companion dog, but two weeks later the coupling process began with the instructors to adapt Bruno to Paula’s moods.

Since the end of July, Bruno has lived with them and has become another member of the family, to the point that he not only helps Paula calm down more quickly or prevent her recurring forays onto the streets, but he also interacts with the rest of the family. On the one hand, he is “helping Paula’s brother, Marc, who’s five, to process the situation he’s experiencing”. For now, Bruno plays with him, but Marc is beginning to learn that Paula is the priority. Bruno also interacts with Paula’s grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s and lives with them: “Some mornings, when gran hasn’t got up on time, Bruno goes into her room and doesn’t leave until she touches him and he knows that everything’s fine. He’s very intuitive and super intelligent,” explains Núria. Their opinion of Bruno leaves no room for doubt: “It’s not just a matter of working with Paula and being there for her. It’s about helping us all to live through the situation better together.”

There are 283 assistance dogs in Catalonia, according to the Department of Social Rights. Many (212) are guide dogs, helping people with visual disabilities. That is the most common image we have of them, quickly identified on the streets of our cities or towns, but there are also some, like Bruno, who work with autistic people (31). Or with sound signalling, that is, they are trained to warn people with hearing impairments of different sounds and indicate their source of origin; or service dogs (25), which assist people with mobility difficulties; or warning dogs (12), which give medical alerts for people who suffer from seizures due to epilepsy, diabetes or cerebral syncope, such as Virginia, who frequently faints.

Virginia, who suffers from agoraphobia as a result of her illness, got her assistance dog by chance, in a very atypical way. A few years ago, her dog died and she decided to adopt a Labrador, Lucky, to have a companion dog. After three months, however, she began to realise that, without having trained him, the dog would indicate when one of her episodes was beginning. She soon contacted Discan and sent Lucky to complete the training on how to send out certain warning signs. Thus her companion dog became an assistance dog and an inseparable helper. Aside from warning, Lucky has other abilities, such as picking things up with his mouth or helping Virginia go outside. The most precious benefit he gives her is the “confidence to go out”; Virginia went a year and a half without leaving home before Lucky arrived. “When he warns me, I know I’m going to faint immediately. So I can prepare. I sit on the floor, stretch my legs and pass out for a few seconds. During this process, Lucky stays by my side.”

Another case is that of Cristina, who was born with cerebral palsy and has mobility problems. She never imagined sharing her life with a dog. In fact, both she and her husband were fearful of the idea. But in the summer of 2019, while on holiday in San Sebastián, they came across a man accompanied by a labrador who was not even an assistance dog. That fortuitous encounter was a revelation. Cristina told her husband and daughter that she would like an assistance dog. On her return she began to look for information and stumbled upon Discan, which she contacted. The adaptation process with her assistance dog, Baileys, has been progressive: first at the Discan facilities and later at home. Two years on, Baileys has stayed for good, as another member of the family.

The dog does not have a harness, but it does have a lead, giving her the assurance that she does not have to walk the streets, cross pedestrian crossings or climb stairs alone. It also helps her if she falls. Although Baileys has become her travel companion, Cristina tells us that he is not always “in work mode” and is also a companion dog like any other.

Guide dogs

The most common assistance dogs are guide dogs, which support people with visual impairment. Many come from the Once organisation, which tests potential users, trains the dogs and carries out the adaptation and monitoring process. Isaac Padrós and David Abad are two of the 283 users in Catalonia. Isaac has a guide dog, Guilty, which has greatly increased his confidence and autonomy, to the point that he now walks up to 10 kilometres a day in his home city of Girona: the dog goes with him to take his daughter to school, to Girona University Law Faculty, where he studies, and also to the swimming pool. “A walk that used to make me very nervous, I can now enjoy from the moment I say, ’let’s go Guilty!’” he says. David has had two guide dogs: Puka and Nit. He stresses their “ability to find crossings and, above all, to dodge obstacles”.

Feature Animals

Feature Animals


“Labradors are ideal assistance dogs”

What is Discan and why was it founded?
It all started while I was working at the Guttmann Institute. I decided to throw myself fully into it, I left the Institute and dedicated myself a hundred percent to the association. From 2007 to 2009 we focused on training therapy dogs and the first assistance dog, looking at what programmes and organisations there were, and whether it was better to form an association or a company. Discan is a non-profit organisation that was initially founded to provide assisted intervention with dogs and assistance dogs for people with disabilities, which are the two areas we work most in. From there, the need arose to train professionals and also to educate in positive reinforcement, that is, without any type of punishment.
What are the different kinds of assistance dogs?
Apart from the guide dog, which is also an assistance dog, there is the service dog, which accompanies people with physical disabilities; the signal dog, which accompanies people with hearing disabilities; the warning dog, which accompanies people with diseases that cause recurrent seizures with subsensory disconnection, whether syncope, diabetes, epilepsy or others; and the dog for children with autism, which is now also being opened up to adults.
Tell us what the dogs can do in each of these cases. Autism, for example...
Each child with autism is different, and there’s a wide range of characteristics and symptoms. But there are some dog skills that can help with common problems, such as escapism, difficulty sleeping, nervousness at home or stereotypy and aggressiveness, either towards themselves or towards other people. In the case of escapism, for example, the dog is tied with two leashes and the moment it feels a pressure, it stands still. In the case of episodes or stereotypy, what we do is put the dog in the middle, so that it captures the attention of the child, who takes less time to wake up from the episode. In the case of sleeping, it is very typical for the child to wake up at night and find it difficult to sleep. When there’s a good bond with the dog, as time passes, the child can sleep without having to have their parents by their side, which allows the family considerable relief.
And in the case of the service dog, what exactly does it do?
It depends, it can range from picking things up off the floor to helping climb stairs or ramps, to crossing streets. With a dog, many people find they can walk much better, more safely and without a cane. In the case of a person in a wheelchair, it can allow access to some places where the user cannot normally reach. In the end, it’s about gaining autonomy, making it easier for people to go out safely.
You start with dogs over 10 months old rather than new-borns...
We look for dogs that are physically and physiologically healthy, because otherwise, they cannot do the service entrusted to them. They must also be stable from an emotional point of view. And you don’t know that with a puppy, no matter how many tests you do on it.
How long can the training process take and what does it consist of?
Including socialisation, basic work and specific training, we can be talking about a year and a half depending on the maturity and age of the dog. It’s true that training helps maturation, but even so, each dog is different and some find it much harder than others.
I imagine not all breeds are useful...
Labradors and Golden Retrievers are the most common. There’s a reason for that. These are breeds that were formerly selected to collect the hunter’s prey. All breeds are born according to the needs of humans. Labradors are ideal as assistance dogs: very willing to work and to change hands if necessary.
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