For most people, hearing the phrase “man’s best friend,” the picture of a wet nose, pink drooling tongue and wagging tail instantly flashes in their minds.
But dogs are not just our friends. To many people with psychological or physical disabilities, having a dog to assist them in their daily life means independence and confidence. The term for these dogs is assistance dogs.
Fresno State student Tiffany Hendrickson, a senior majoring in communication, is the owner of a golden labrador service dog named Roxanne.
Roxanne understands more than 50 commands and is always ready to lend a helping hand – or “paw” – to Hendrickson, who is in a wheelchair, in daily tasks. Among the tasks that Roxanne can perform are opening doors, retrieving dropped items, turning on lights and even a “pull command” where she can pull Hendrickson in her wheelchair.
“You don’t have the intimidated to ask someone to do it for you all the time or you dropped something and you can’t do it,” she said. “She’ll do it, and she’s more than willing to do it.”
Hendrickson found it indescribable to explain how much Roxanne had changed her life since she brought her home in 2001. Roxanne not only boosts her self-confidence but also is the best form of ice breaker for meeting new people.
“I do outreach and public speaking, and I wouldn’t have done any of those things before I got her,” Hendrickson said. “I feel like she’s kind of that foster between the disabled world and the abled world. People asked me questions about the dog, and they aren’t afraid to confront me or come speak to me.”
Hendrickson’s friend, Holly Jensen, is a masters student in linguistics, specializing in English as a special language. Her guide dog, Ajax, acts as her eyes because she is blind. He takes her around obstacles or stops at them so she can figure out the best way to get past it. Usually, he prefers to take Jensen around if he can.
“It’s really cool because with a cane, you have to sort of feel your way around, but Ajax just sort of does it,” Jensen said. He knows how to stop at curbs and stuff.”
Jensen received Ajax almost two years ago, and has since made traveling an adventure for her. Similar to Hendrickson, Ajax has also helped her a lot, socially. “There isn’t any ice to break anymore because everyone says, ‘What a beautiful dog!’” she said. “From complete strangers!”
Assistance dogs are trained since they were puppies, going through several homes of volunteer puppy raisers under the guide of organizations such as Guide Dogs for the Blind and Canine Companions for Independence.
Ajax went through three homes, Jensen said.
“By switching them around, it makes them adaptable to socializing and being in different forms of environment.”
When the dogs are about 1 year old, they are sent for formal training where they learn specific tasks depending on what type of assistance dogs they will become.
As owners of assistance dogs, Jensen and Hendrickson occasionally face misunderstandings from other people that assistance dogs are treated as “slaves.”
“He is not a slave,” Jensen said. “He doesn’t work for nothing in return. I give him a lot of love and affection. He gets time to play. He is just held to a certain standard of behavior that a lot of people don’t have to hold their dogs to, but I have to or he’d start misbehaving in public.”
Hendrickson found it difficult to explain to others the differences between a normal pet dog and an assistance dog. People always ask her if Roxanne ever gets to have fun, she said.
“Work is fun, that’s what she’s trained to do,” Hendrickson said. “Dogs want a job. This is fun for her and she enjoys it. I mean you ask her to do something, and not only her tail wags, but her whole body wags, like, ‘Yeah! I’m doing my job!’”
During their off days, both Ajax and Roxanne still act like normal dogs. They play together with their owner and owner’s family, or they play by themselves with their many toys.
“Sometimes when I’m doing my homework, I will have him in the room with the door shut. He wants attention. ‘Well if I’m going to stay here, I’m going to get attention,’” Jensen said. “He’d put his head on my lap and sleep there.”
For Roxanne, she is just content by sleeping in her own bed when she has nothing to do, Hendrickson said.