Today we feature the next organization in our assistance dogs series and today we welcome Support Dogs who are based in Sheffield UK and who train seizure alert dogs for people with epilepsy.
1. Firstly, please introduce yourself and tell us the name of your organization and where you are based? We are Support Dogs, a registered charity, based in the city of Sheffield in Yorkshire, in the north of England.
2. What does your organization do? Support Dogs is the only organisation in the UK to train seizure alert dogs for people with epilepsy. We are dedicated to improving the quality of life for people with other physical disabilities, and children with autism, by training dogs to act as efficient and safe assistants.
3. How long have you been in the service dog field? Support Dogs was formed in 1992 with the first animals being trained the following year.
4. How do you know which breeds of dogs will be a good fit for you, and how are individual dogs selected? Our dogs vary widely, in both breed and size – from little Jack Russell terriers to large St. Bernards! The only unsuitable dogs tend to be the guarding breeds or those with a strong tendency to chase.
5. In line with the question above can you tell us more about the personal training the dogs receive? To qualify as a seizure alert or autism assistance dog requires the successful completion of 16 weeks intensive training at our Centre. They are then taken to the giant Meadowhall shopping centre in Sheffield for a public access test. Over the course of 20-30 minutes they are expected to walk to heel with their owner, stop and sit on command, pick up a dropped lead, and pass a six feet recall test. They are checked on their use of lifts and are monitored for their reaction to being greeted by a number of strangers such as adults, children, people in uniform and someone in a wheelchair. They are finally taken to a café where food is dropped nearby (or, on one miscued occasion, actually ON the dog) and the animal is expected not to attempt to eat it – even if draped in roast chicken!
6. Once a dog is matched with a person, does that person also need to go through a training or induction period? Once someone qualifies for a Support Dog we bring them to the Centre to meet one or two animals that we think might be suitable. Once a match has been made seizure alert and autism assistance dogs undergo a further six months training with their owner. Training to become a disability assistance dog takes place at the Centre and in the owner’s home.
7. If someone wishes to support or otherwise become involved with your organization, how do they do it? Also, is there anything they can do on a practical level or maybe to help with fundraising? Every dog costs approximately twelve thousand pounds ($18,800) to train and we receive no public funding – everything we do we have to raise the funds to pay for. Volunteers to help out in the office, and at our events, are always welcome as are one off donations, however small, from people who would like to help. Contact us via the email link on our website (see below) and we will do the rest!
8. As this is Pet Hooligans, where we celebrate everything about pets, including their occasional naughtiness, do the support dogs ever get into any mischief or is there something very endearing about their characters that you can tell us about? Our dogs are very well trained and once they put on the Support Dogs vest they know they are working and are exceptionally well behaved. But when that vest comes off they can act like any other dog, since many of the dogs we use are Labradors…well, everybody knows a lab is permanently peckish! One such dog, Paddy a black lab, had come to us in a career change from being a guide dog to becoming a disability assistance dog. But Paddy was a real quick learner. On his first night with his foster carers he watched as they disposed of food scraps in a waste bin operated by a foot pedal. He was so excited at his discovery he didn’t even wait until the humans were no longer around – he shot over to the bin, used his paw to pop the lid and stuck his head in to get the food!
9. Can you give us an example of a very special bond between a support dog and their human partner, and describe how the dog enriched that person’s life? We have just successfully trained the first dual disability dog in the UK! Hetty, a two-year-old black Labrador cross, first trained as a guide dog before being trained as a seizure alert dog. Her owner Tony Brown-Griffin, who lives in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, is registered blind and is also prone to severe epileptic seizures. The partnership successfully completed training in November 2011.
“Hetty is phenomenal dog, I could never have imagined how good she could be,” said Tony. “Not only does she help guide me but she is always on the watch out for symptoms of a seizure. If it is a minor seizure she will come to a half and sit, but at an angle, not straight like she normally does. But if it is a major event, she will warn me by putting her chin on my knee or pawing at me. This gives me time to get to a place of safety.”
10. Finally, if people want to learn more about your organization may we have your web address, Facebook page or Twitter profile where they can find out more? Find out more from our website www.support-dogs.org.uk ; we’re on Facebook – supportdogsuk1 or follow us on Twitter supportdogsuk