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Frequently asked questions: Assistance Dogs

How long have there been assistance dogs for wheelchair users?

The first assistance dog was trained in America in 1972 for a young tetraplegic woman.

What exactly is the process for a wheelchair user to obtain an assistance dog?

The wheelchair user agrees a date for a personal interview and a visit to the school. If both parties are fully satisfied with the results, the next step is a visit to the person’s local environment. This inspection is used to examine the conditions locally, and possibly at the place of work. We do this so that we can allocate the best dog possible, but also to address practical aspects such as: "Where would the dog sleep?" or "Where can one go for a walk?"

What can an assistance dog do?

  • open and close doors and drawers
  • assist with getting undressed
  • pick up objects that have fallen on the floor
  • fetch the telephone
  • operate light switches
  • empty the washing machine
  • bark in an emergency and much more

How much does it cost to train an assistance dog?

The total cost for an assistance dog is around CHF 50'000.

How are assistance dogs financed?

The future keeper of the assistance dog will not have to pay. The costs are financed jointly by the federal disability insurance and our foundation. The foundation itself is funded by donations and legacies from private individuals, and by the sale of promotional articles.

What happens to dogs that are deemed unsuitable? Are they sold?

All the dogs remain the property of the school throughout their life. Dogs deemed unsuitable for training in this capacity may be considered for training as social dogs. If so, they will be placed with somebody who can work through this type of training with the dog, and will then be prepared to carry out voluntary tasks on a regular basis. If this type of training is not possible, the animal is placed as a family dog.

Why are all assistance dogs neutered?

In principle, neutered dogs are easier to handle. A female on heat or competition between non-neutered males could have a negative impact on a dog’s ability to do its job properly. A female on heat would be harassed by males, who might also be attacked by other males. In a situation of this nature, it would be impossible for the dogs to concentrate on their work.

Are there other assistance dog schools in Switzerland?

In the Canton of Valais, there is a training institution by the name of “Le Copain.”

Is it hard to return a dog that you have come to love?

Yes and no. Normally, instructors will be responsible for their dogs throughout their lives. This means that contact is never really lost. In addition, it is a great reward for an instructor to see that the animal does its job well and has a harmonious relationship with its owner.

How quickly is it noticeable if a dog is not suitable for training?

A period of weeks or even months may pass before a decision is taken, depending upon the dog, problem or difficulty that leads to a dog being deemed unsuitable. It is easier to establish if health reasons are responsible, or if the dog is afraid of gunshots.

Why is it that Labrador Retrievers are most commonly trained?

In principle, other breeds and mongrels can also be trained. The important factor is that it is a medium-sized breed that enjoys work of this nature.

Labradors are robust and easy to look after. Apart from the pleasure they gain from the work, they are independent, friendly towards people and members of their own species and very adaptable. These positive characteristics are certainly the main reason why many assistance dogs around the world are Labrador Retrievers.

Are the dogs in the school often left alone?

We try to ensure that the dogs are left alone as little as possible and are kept busy. The dog is a pack animal and needs contact its own species and with people. The dogs are always kept in pairs in a kennel. If instructors are absent and unable to work with their dog, it is looked after individually and kept busy by a dog carer.

How long do the training sequences last?

Depending upon the level of training the dog has reached, they may last from a few minutes up to half an hour at a time. During training, the instructors look closely at the emotional constitution of the dog, and tailor the training lessons accordingly to a certain extent.

What are the main reasons for dogs to drop out?

The most common reasons for failure are health issues, inability to cope with pressure, failure to enjoy the work and visual or acoustic deficiencies.

Why are the voice commands in Italian?

The Italian language is particularly suitable for the 30 or so vocal commands because vowels appear a lot more often than in German. This enables the dog to differentiate more easily between the different vocal commands.

In other schools, dogs are usually trained in the national language.

How long does the training last?

As a rule, training lasts a total of 6 months.

Is a male or a female dog more suitable?

As far as training is concerned, there is no difference between a male dog and a female. The differences are more to do with the individual dogs, and have nothing to do its gender.

How is it clear whether a wheelchair user and assistance dog have bonded with one another?

Dog and person must share a matching character and temperament. A very active person needs a lively and resilient dog. A quiet person who works in an office needs a dog that can lie peacefully under the desk for a few hours.

What opportunities are there for a wheelchair user’s dog to exercise and run free?

Assistance dogs need some time off too. We recommend that they should be taken for an hour’s walk at least once every day and have at least four other short walks of about 15 minutes each for toileting. Even as early as the visit to see where the potential keeper lives, the instructor will join the keeper in searching for places where the dog can run free. It is important for the wheelchair user to have an electric wheelchair or a Swisstrac in order for these walks to be possible.

Do wheelchair users choose their own dogs?

The school decides upon the most suitable dog. If a number of suitable dogs are available, the assistance dog owner can choose between them.

May the assistance dog handler make specific proposals in terms of assistance?

Yes. These wishes will be included in the dog’s training wherever possible. For example, they may include: emptying the washing machine, removing shoes, identifying, finding and fetching objects by name.

What are the advantages of introduction within the user’s local environment?

By introducing the dog within the user’s local environment, the instructor can practice different situations, such as opening a heavy door at the place of work or operating a light switch at home, with the team on site.

What happens to assistance dogs when they are too old to work?

Assistance dogs that are no longer able to fulfil their duties for age or health reasons are "retired" from service. The retired assistance dog may remain with its owner but will cease to have the function of an assistance dog. Alternatively, and by agreement with the owner, the school will take the dog back and place it with a suitable family, where it will remain as long as it can enjoy a fulfilling existence.

What happens to the assistance dog if the owner dies? Is the dog redeployed?

Depending upon the age of the dog, it is either placed with another wheelchair user or retired early.