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Balance Dogs for Multiple Sclerosis

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Updated June 10, 2014

Service dogs are specially-trained dogs that assist people living with disability in a variety of ways. Guide dogs can help people with vision difficulties to move about and navigate the world. Dogs can be trained to assist people with hearing loss by indicating when a phone is ringing or a baby is crying. Balance dogs help people get up and down from chairs and bed as well as have increased mobility to do various daily activities. Balance dogs are becoming more commonly used by people with MS. According the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service dogs have a right to be anywhere that you have a right to be.

Service Dogs for People Living With MS

A well-trained balance dog can be an amazing help to someone with MS, by performing the following functions (among others):
  • Sensing when people are tired and encourage them to rest by gently nudging them toward a chair or wall
  • Helping people get in and out of chairs and beds by bracing them as they get up and down
  • Helping people move from room to room inside a house
  • Picking up dropped items from the floor like a telephone or a pen.
  • Pushing buttons in an elevator
  • Opening doors using a special device
  • Turning on and off lights
In order to perform all of their duties in the most efficient, unobtrusive way possible, these dogs also:
  • Wear a special balance harness.
  • Carry a backpack with supplies.
  • Are discrete (for example, some dogs are trained to hide under tables in restaurants)
One of the most important functions that these dogs fulfill for their owners is the provision of constant loyal companionship.

Types of Dogs

Not all dogs make good balance dogs. The dog must be large enough to support extra weight. The dog also cannot have any health problems, must be trainable and must be able to focus on the task that needs to be accomplished. Some of the most common breeds used are:
  • Great Danes
  • Golden Retrievers
  • Labrador Retrievers

Could a Balance Dog Help Me?

Before you seriously begin to think about a balance dog for yourself, you should ask yourself a few questions:
  • Do you like dogs?
  • Could a balance dog help me, given my level of disability?
  • Can you (or someone else) care for the dog?
  • Are you willing to work with your dog?

How To Obtain a Balance Dog

There are three routes to getting a balance dog:
  • Owner/Trainer: You train the dog yourself. This could be very rewarding, but you run the risk that the puppy you bought develops health problems or a personality not suited for a service dog.
  • Professionally-Trained Dogs: You hire a professional dog trainer to help you train your dog. You run the same risks as above, but with a greater chance of success. The cost, however, goes up as well.
  • Assistance Dog Organizations: You purchase an dog which has already been trained to be a service dog. There is little regulation of these organizations and quality of the dogs and the training may vary greatly. Be sure to check out each organization thoroughly and talk to people who have gotten dogs from the place you are interested in.

There may be financial assistance available to you both for purchasing, training and maintaining a balance dog. This will depend greatly on your level of disability and programs available in your area. You can call your MS care provider, local MS Society chapter and other organizations serving people with disabilities to find out what your options are.

Helpful Organizations

Assistance Dogs International: This is an organization of non-profit organizations that train assistance dogs.

American Dog Trainers’ Network: This website has a listing of professional dog trainers, including listings of trainers specializing in assistance dogs.

International Association of Assistance Dog Partners: This website represents a community of people who use assistance, service and balance dogs. This is a wonderful place to ask questions and learn more.

Sources:

Jodi Lee Ryan and Anne-Elizabeth Straub, People with MS Are... Going to the Dogs. April-May 2005 InsideMS.

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