A Helping Paw for Parkinson’s

An assistance dog is trained to aid or assist an individual with a disability.

If you’ve ever spoken to someone with a service dog, it’s easy to see that these animals change lives. For a veteran returning home with post-traumatic stress disorder, the canine “battle buddy” is there to shine a light on his or her darkest hours. For a child with epilepsy, the family can rest easy, knowing that there is always someone there to lend a helping paw. If you are living with Parkinson’s, a service dog could be a transformative feature in your story.

How a Service Dog Could Make Your Life Easier

Service dogs are specifically trained to perform tasks to assist individuals living with physical challenges, including people with Parkinson’s. Service dogs help to improve their human companion’s independence and well-being, and studies show that the dogs provide a variety of benefits, including:

Encouraging Regular Exercise.

Research continues to highlight the benefits of regular physical exercise for people with Parkinson’s. Service dogs can both encourage and enable more regular exercise.

Reducing Loneliness.

Service dogs provide more than help; they provide companionship. The mere presence of a service dog can increase social interaction, as people come up to meet the dog and its guardian.

Daily Help.

For people with Parkinson’s, service dogs can be trained to perform a variety of helpful tasks, ranging from daily assistance with routine activities to specialized support. Service dogs can help with:

  • Enhancing your balance while walking or using stairs, reducing fear and risk of falls
  • Mitigating freezing by nudging a leg or gently pulling on a leash
  • Providing support while getting in and out of chairs or getting up after a fall
  • Retrieving and carrying objects, such as medication bottles or a dropped phone
  • Assisting in dressing and undressing by fetching clothes or gently tugging off socks
  • Opening doors and turning lights on or off
  • Retrieving adaptive equipment or pulling a wheelchair
  • Seeking help, pushing Lifeline call button or dialing 911 speed dial

Parkinson’s New Zealand interviewed two American women with Parkinson’s to learn how they interact with and rely on their service dogs’ support daily. Watch the short video to see how these furry companions can improve mobility, restore confidence and foster greater independence.

Things to Keep in Mind When Considering a Service Dog

 If you’re interested in getting a service dog to help with Parkinson’s, there are a number of important things to consider.

Cost

Some organizations require significant fundraising or payment for service dogs. Others only charge a small application fee. Regardless, you should think about budgeting for the cost of your future dog, since in the US, no state, federal or private health insurance company will cover their living expenses.

From food, to regular veterinary check-ups and vaccines, you should estimate about $2,000 per year to care for your dog. While this is a great place to start, it’s important to remember that unexpected veterinary expenses can happen. Think in advance about how you would respond to these circumstances, and clearly establish whether there is a limit to the amount you could spend on veterinary care.

Time

As the value of service dogs becomes more widely recognized, demand continues to increase. When exploring different service dog provider organizations, ask what the timeline looks like for receiving your dog and whether they have a waitlist.

Talk to Your Doctor

As you consider whether a service dog might be a good fit for you and your family, be sure to ask your doctor to help you assess how you may benefit. Together, you can talk through your symptoms, needs and limitations. You can also let your doctor know what role they he or she will play in your application for a service dog, be it providing a copy of your medical history or completing any additional paperwork.

Breed Requests

While some organizations specialize in one breed of dog, many will allow your input on breed or size. For instance, if you need help with brace and balance tasks, you’ll need a dog large enough to support your weight.

Additionally, you may request a hypoallergenic breed if you or a family member suffers from allergies. Special requests could impact your wait time, so be sure to mention this up front for a more accurate estimate of when you could expect to receive your dog.

Current Pets

Having pets does not disqualify you from being considered for a service dog. The right organization will work with you to ensure your service dog gets along with any other animals already living in your home.

Application Process

The application process exists to ensure that you are a good fit for a service dog and that the best match is made for your particular needs. Applications vary by organization and can be lengthy.  Some common topics covered can include:

  • Describing your Parkinson’s and the type of assistance you desire
  • A background check and/or information about pets you have owned previously
  • Video or photography may be used to further document your mobility and your home/work environment
  • Letters of recommendation and/or a medical history can provide additional support for why you would be a good candidate for a service dog
  • For non-active military, a copy of your DD214 form (Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty) may be required

Occasionally, organizations require an in-person or phone interview to discuss your application in more detail.

Training and Follow-Up

In the end, you and your service dog will be a team. You’ll need to know how to work with your dog and what to do if you have problems.

Ask about the organization’s “placement process” and how you will transition into caring for and working with your new service dog. In addition, ask whom you can contact if you run into problems or need to add new skills to your dog’s knowledge base.

Laws and Etiquette

The scope of service dog etiquette and laws continues to grow, so ask how the organization providing your service dog will prepare you to answer questions and advocate for your rights to public access and accommodations.

Check Out Organizations in Your Area

Assistance Dogs International (ADI) is a coalition of nonprofit assistance dog organizations that meet the highest level of standards in training, care, education and advocacy for assistance dogs. The ‘Programs Search’ feature helps you to locate organizations nearest to you. Take advantage of the opportunity to reach out and learn more about this exciting option on your journey to living well with Parkinson’s.

If you or someone you know has a service dog for Parkinson’s, what advice would you or they give to others considering a service dog?

If you’d like to be part of early research efforts that are looking into the efficacy of service dogs for those living with Parkinson’s, please take this survey.

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