Assistance Dogs ARE Happy, Guest Column by Toni Eames


“Assistance Dogs May be Well Cared For But Are They Happy” was the title of a controversial column featuring Jennifer Arnold, founder of a service dog school called Canine Assistants and author of “Though A Dog’s Eyes”  (Spiegal & Grau, New York, NY, 2010; $25). Many disagreed vehemently with Arnold, including the author of this guest blog, Toni Eames, president International Association of Assistance Dog Partners. Toni and her late husband Ed has been pioneers in the assistance dog movement for decades, educating the general public as well as professionals, including dog trainers and veterinarians.

“I’m responding to Steve Dale’s Pet World column on March 5th featuring Jennifer Arnold’s founder of Canine Assistants comments about the relationship between disabled persons and their assistance dogs, considered by many experts to represent the epitome of the human/animal bond.

Arnold tells the public via Steve’s column,  ‘I’ll just come out and say it — and expect to be attacked for saying it — but these dogs are slave labor. I don’t know how else to put it. And it is the truth that no one talks about.’

As the President of the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (IAADP) I’d like to thank Steve for the opportunity to address this subject.  Founded in 1993, IAADP is a cross disability nonprofit that represents and advocates for disabled individuals and their beloved guide, hearing and service dogs.  We work to foster the assistance dog movement through education, advocacy and peer support initiatives.  This includes a special Fund generously supported by contributions from Bayer Animal Health, Nutramax Laboratories and other caring donors to help a disabled member when an assistance dog  develops a medical problem that is treatable but the cost of the recommended treatment to save the partnership would impose a severe financial hardship.

On behalf of our 3,000 members worldwide and many others, I certainly agree with Ms. Arnold’s statement ‘Assistance dogs change lives, save lives, help people to live more independently and therefore productively; there’s no question about it.’  However I find her characterization of our assistance dogs as ‘slave labor’ to be a far cry from the truth.

Assistance Dogs are no different from other working dogs such as Search & Rescue Dogs, Narcotics and Explosive Detection dogs and sheep herding dogs.  Such dogs are chosen for a high aptitude to work cooperatively with a human partner and the ability to intensely focus on their jobs whenever needed. The truth is we absolutely have no way to force a dog to track down a lost child with Downs Syndrome, get help for someone who has fallen out of her wheelchair or to perform other tasks like guiding a blind person safely through city streets, alerting a deaf person to important sounds like a ringing alarm clock or to carefully provide a veteran whose leg has been amputated with balance support while walking.  They are independent thinkers who let their trainers and potential disabled partners know whether teamwork is something they are willing to do!

Some members of the public misunderstand the serious demeanor of a Guide, Hearing or Service Dog at work.  Instead of admiring the way our dog focuses intently on the important job of team safety, ignoring passing strangers, loud noises, strange scents and distractions; some people jump to the conclusion our assistance dogs must be unhappy.  After all, the dog does not appear to be joyful as he accompanies us on our errands and travels.  So, of course, he’s not dancing around full of excitement, tail wagging, soliciting attention from the public and making play bows whenever dogs bark behind a fence.

Our dogs know when it is time to work and time to play. People frequently remark that they just can’t resist “those sad brown eyes” when their own dog or a friend’s dog comes over to beg them for treats.  A Golden Retriever or Lab who lies calmly under the table at a restaurant may look up with “those sad brown eyes” if someone pauses to ask a question of the handler, but the alleged “sadness” of the dog’s expression is a judgment call from the onlooker, it’s not a true measure of a dog’s actual state of mind.”