A Golden Retriever dog, Tilly, moved in with Keith Mitchell who was born with cerebral palsy and finds it difficult – if not impossible – to perform a wide variety of everyday tasks or leave his home unaided. However, ever since he teamed up with Tilly – the 10th “assistance” dog trained by Scotland’s Canine Partners in the UK – he has gained so much independence. Tilly does things Mitchell can’t such as handing him the TV remote control; opening the washing machine and removing the clothes, helping him outside and pressing his panic button if he is unable to. In addition, she is Mitchell’s constant companion when he needs to leave the house. Before the two teamed up, he would have to wait until someone came if he dropped something. Now, Tilly helps him, opening doors and pushing buttons when she sees he needs it.Assistance Dogs are usually Labrador or Golden Retriever breeds, trained to provide a specific service to their users, while increasing their freedom and independence. They can be split into three different categories: a) for the blind or visually-limited; b) for the deaf or hearing-limited and c) for people with disabilities other than those connected to sight or hearing, such as individuals like Keith Mitchell who have cerebral palsy.
While Guide Dogs for the blind is an age-old concept pre-dating the 1950s, the concept of Assistance Dogs is a much more recent one. They are taken from special breeding programs with volunteer puppy-raisers who look after them until they are ready to begin their formal training. Sometimes the dogs are taken from animal shelters and trained to do this. Today, most countries respect Assistance Dogs and give them access to public places, transport, etc. Dogs start training for this role when they are between the ages of eight weeks and two years. Trainers seek out happy, confident and friendly dogs, eager to learn. Should they be taken from a shelter, they are screened for temperament-suitability before training begins. Those dogs that show an inability to be trained during the process are placed in a pet home, but will never be returned to a pound or shelter.