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The Newfoundland At Your Service

Based on an article that appeared in Newf Tide written by Jan Boggio, 1st Quarter 2000

According to Assistance Dogs International, service dogs can fulfill many different needs for their owners. They assist "physically disabled people by retrieving objects that are out of their reach, by pulling wheelchairs, opening and closing doors, turning light switches off and on, barking for alert, finding another person, assisting ambulatory persons to walk by providing balance and counterbalance, and many other individual tasks."

The majority of service dogs currently in use in the U.S. are either Golden Retrievers or Labrador Retrievers. Most are trained by assistance dog organizations, then later matched with their owners.

Newfoundlands certainly don't fit the typical service dog mold. Their size (and amount of drool) can make working with them in public a challenge.

Dick Shumer had owned Newfoundlands before his injury, and one day thought of using Fagin (his older Newf) as a brace to help him stand when he couldn't get up from the sofa. From there, he used his knowledge of training dogs to work with Fagin and researched how to train an assistance dog. Fagin was not an "official" service dog, although he worked with Dick in that capacity until Buddy was ready to take his place.

Dick says the positive side of a Newfoundland service dog is the size and strength of the dog. "I can place my hand on Buddy to steady myself without having to bend over too much," Dick explains. "Buddy crawls underneath me and lifts me up when I can't walk. But the biggest asset is the intelligence of the Newf. Buddy was a joy to train and the Newf's desire to please is very much a plus factor."

Cathi Catlett very much agrees. She chose a Newf because of their size, intelligence, loyalty, strength, and willingness to please. "Labs, Goldens, and Shepherds are not big enough or strong enough to lower me into and out of a bathtub, or into and out of my chair the way that Clayton does. I didn't want to fall out of my chair when positively reinforcing him with a pet. I want/need Clayton to remain focused on the task at hand and not solicit attention from others—very important since Clayton does seizure alert/response work for me. Clayton works for a ‘good boy,' ‘thank you,' or a soft stroke of his ear—not for food."

Both Dick and Cathi mentioned similar negatives: the relatively shorter lifespan of the Newf, drool, the grooming involved, and the difficulty of getting a Newfoundland to fit under a table when eating out.

To become certified, both Buddy and Clayton had to take the Public Access Test offered by the Assistance Dogs International. Then both of them had to take another test that was specialized in what they had to do to help Dick and Cathi with their specific disabilities. Training leading up to these tests was a seven day a week, year and a half long task.

When working, both dogs wear a harness with a backpack. The harness and backpacks are designed to handle almost all disabilities. Dick uses the backpack to carry I.D. papers, including copies of the state and federal regulations regarding access for service dogs, and Buddy's Assistance Dog I.D. Cathi explains that Clayton wears a harness/backpack that allows for free shoulder movement, "for him to pull my wheelchair if batteries were to fail, and the pack carries our emergency medical information and medical equipment for me that is easy for me to reach. "

Cathi explains that Clayton's ability to alert her of coming seizures is not a trained behavior. "First you begin training the response—staying with the person during the seizure, pushing an emergency help button, retrieving the phone, and/or retrieving medication. What is the most important in Seizure Alert Dogs is the bond between you and your dog. Once this bond starts getting strong, the dog may begin to tell you when something is different. We really don't know how they know, but we believe that the dog picks up on an extra energy field present and possibly chemical change that is going on in the body. "

To make sure that there is consistent behavior prior to the seizure, the human partner will have to have someone else observe what the dog does prior to seizures. Dogs may alert in different ways—some dogs will leave the room, another may do some vocalization, another may touch the palm of their partner's hand with their nose, others will get antsy, others will put their head in their partner's lap, encouraging them to either sit or lay down, or the dog might stop in their tracks and stare at their partner.

As anyone who is owned by Newfoundland knows, these dogs attract attention when out in public. "People assume that they can just pet Clayton, without asking, because they want to," Cathi says.

"People are just naturally curious and they all want to run up and pet the dog," Dick agrees. "I have to constantly explain to people that they cannot pet him while he is working. I usually offer to go outside the store, find a place to sit down, and then allow the people to pet him."

Both Dick and Cathi continue to work to educate the public about the work these special dogs perform. Dick and Buddy go to elementary schools and give informal presentations on Assistance Dogs. Dick tells the children how to act when they see a person that uses an assistance dog. He explains that it's not a good thing to run up and try to pet the dog, but that it's fine to ask the person questions about their dog. He finishes up the presentation with cart rides for the children.

Cathi is a Certified Service Dog Access Specialist for Delta Society. She does consultant work to educate others about public access and Assistance Dogs. She also helps other disabled individuals train their own dogs to assist them.

Read More about Cathi and Clayton

Read More about Dick and Buddy

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