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Assistance dogs provide help and love

Dear Savvy Senior: What can you tell me about assistance dogs for people with disabilities? My sister, who’s 58, has multiple sclerosis. — Inquiring Sister

Dear Inquiring: For people with disabilities and even medical conditions, assistancw dogs can be fantastic help, not to mention they provide great companionship and a sense of security.

While most people are familiar with guide dogs that help people who are visually impaired, assistance dogs are trained to help people with physical disabilities and hearing loss.

Unlike most pets, assistance dogs are highly trained animals that know approximately 40 to 50 commands, are well-behaved and calm, and are permitted to go anywhere the public is allowed.

Here’s a breakdown of the different types of assistance dogs:

>> Service dogs: These dogs are specially trained to help people with physical disabilities due to multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, Parkinson’s disease, chronic arthritis and other conditions. They help by performing tasks their owners cannot do or have trouble doing, like carrying or retrieving items, opening and closing doors, turning lights on and off, assisting with dressing and undressing, helping with balance and performing household chores.

>> Guide dogs: For the blind and visually impaired, guide dogs help their owners avoid obstacles, stop at curbs and steps and negotiate traffic.

>> Hearing dogs: For those who are deaf or hearing impaired, hearing dogs can alert their owner to sounds such as ringing telephones, doorbells, alarm clocks, microwave or oven timers, smoke alarms, sirens, crying babies or when someone calls their name.

>> Seizure alert/response dogs: For people with epilepsy or other seizure disorders, this type of dog can recognize the signs that their owner is going to have a seizure, and provide them with advance warning, so he or she can get to a safe place or take medication to prevent the seizure or lessen its severity. They are also trained to retrieve medications and use a phone to call for help. These dogs can also be trained to help people with diabetes and panic attacks.

If your sister is interested in getting a service dog, contact some training programs. Assistance Dogs International lists programs at AssistanceDogsInternational.org.

Call programs in your area to find out the types of dogs they offer, the areas they serve, if they have a waiting list, and what costs will be involved. Some groups offer dogs for free, some ask for donations and some charge thousands of dollars.

Your sister will need to show proof of her disability, provided by her physician, complete an application and go through an interview process.

She will need to stay at the training facility for a week or two so she can get familiar with her dog and how to handle it.

Jim Miller is a contributor to NBC-TV’s “Today” program and author of “The Savvy Senior.” Send your questions to Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070; or visit savvysenior.org.

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