Parkinson's disease patient and advocate Peter Morabito keeps pushing for a cure. Friends and family members drive the retired dentist from Washington, DC, to speaking engagements and meetings with researchers at the National Institutes of Health. Walking presents a formidable challenge, but Niles, his one-year-old Great Dane, provides physical support and confidence, granting Morabito autonomy to champion the cause.

"With a cane in one hand and my dog in the other, I can go. I can actually walk," says Morabito. "Having a service dog frees up your caregiver's time. Now you're mobile."

For thousands of years, people have relied on dogs for hunting, companionship, survival, and protection. But in the last century, people have called upon canines to aid those coping with a number of diseases. Formally trained dogs have guided blind Americans for more than 70 years. And dogs have been taught to alert people with hearing impairments to sounds like the door bell or an alarm clock since the 1960s. Now dogs aid those with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, and some are even used to detect and warn of seizures before they happen. But perhaps the greatest gift these animals can give their owners is renewed independence and the improved ability to live and work in our modern world.

Renewed Independence

Monitoring a loved one with memory problems to ensure that the person does not wander outside alone or turn on the stove leaves many caregivers time for little else. But, in Floral City, Florida, Sue Wardach enjoys tending the garden and sleeping more soundly, knowing that her golden retriever, Rudy, will alert her if her 80-year-old mother, who has Alzheimer's disease, starts to move.

"I can live a somewhat normal life and go outside," says Wardach. "Rudy has given Mom some independence, with a watchful eye, and reduced stress levels throughout the whole family." In addition, Rudy's presence often diffuses stressful situations and gives Wardach an opportunity to leave the room and count to 10. "Mom's been able to stay with me a lot longer, rather than going into a nursing home," Wardach says.

Niles also provides Peter Morabito, who has had Parkinson's disease for 15 years, with renewed independence. Parkinson's disease often causes patients to "freeze" or stop moving. Niles has learned to tap Morabito's foot to break the freeze. He also braces and provides a counter balance to prevent falls and, if one occurs, stands firm and lets Morabito use him for support to climb upright again.

"Niles knows if I am dragging my foot or not walking well, and he will stop and make sure I start to walk right again," explains Morabito. "I can lean on him, and he won't give. He holds me up."

What the Research Shows

Numerous studies have demonstrated that service and companion animals can improve physical and mental health. For instance, one study in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported the results of a randomized, controlled study showing how service dogs aided people with ambulatory disabilities. After participants received dogs, their self-esteem increased and the need for assistance from family and paid caregivers dropped by 64% and 68%, respectively.

"The health benefits are outstanding, as well as the sense of independence and confidence," says Tamara Whitehall, program coordinator for the Delta Society National Service Dog Center. She explains that once someone has a service animal, the person is often able to return to work. Service dogs can provide both owner's and their family members with renewed independence.

What Service Dogs Can Do

Today, more than 100 organizations around the world train dogs to assist people with a wide assortment of disabilities. Some animals pull wheelchairs. Some help their owners get out of bed or into and out of the tub. Others help their owners to maintain balance and coordination when walking and doing other activities. Service dogs have even learned personalized skills like flipping light switches, picking up items, carrying supplies, putting clothes in the washer and dryer, and opening doors.

"The dogs are thrilled to be doing something for someone," says Donna McCaffery of Independence Dogs, a facility that trains guide dogs. "Dogs love it. They get to go everywhere with their person." The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) grants service animals access to places otherwise off limits to dogs.

Many persons with disabilities or illnesses can obtain greater independence with the help of service animals. Below are just a few examples of what service dogs can potentially do:

  • Alert people who are deaf or hard of hearing to the presence of others or to important sounds (eg, sirens and alarms, a person's name being called, traffic, a child crying, etc.)
  • Provide help with mobility (eg, retrieve objects, help a person to balance while walking, carry items in backpacks, lead persons who have visual impairments around obstacles, etc.)
  • Provide stress relief for people with mental or emotional disabilities
  • Alert their handlers to episodes of hypoglycemia before the people have symptoms, giving those persons time to monitor and correct their glucose level
  • Help people who have Parkinson's disease by initiating body contact to interrupt episodes of tremor or propulsive walking
  • Provide protection during a seizure and helping someone become reoriented and mobile after the seizures
  • Possibly alert people, and their caregivers of oncoming seizures, giving those persons time to stop activities and assume safe positions before seizures occur

Thinking About a Service Dog?

The decision to bring a service dog into your family can be a big one, and should not be entered into lightly. Rudy and Niles received months of special training at nonprofit programs—Rudy at Okada, in Florida, and Niles at Independence Dogs—where they mastered watching out for their humans' special needs and how to take corrective measures. A trainer assesses each dog's natural abilities and tendencies, builds on those strengths, trains the dog to meet the specific needs of its human partner, and teaches the person how to behave with the dog and what commands and reinforcements to use.

The Delta Society provides information about service animals and consumer tips for those considering a dog. National standards or regulations for trainers do not exist. Some of the factors to consider include:

  • Cost Training can run as high as $15,000, but Whitehall reports that many funding possibilities exist.
  • Care Just like any dog, service animals require veterinary attention, feeding, water, walks, and play time.
  • Love for animals Dogs are not for everyone, especially those afraid of animals or anyone unwilling to accept care responsibilities.