Dogs may be man's best friend, but for a number of Chicago-area children, teens, tweens and young adults, that special bond between human and a four-legged friend is much, much more.
Over time, animals have helped us work, provided transportation, offered companionship and their presence has been at the center of a variety health benefits. For those with mobility challenges, that bond and its benefits is a lifeline to independence.
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Service dogs and kids
Fido may be man's best friend, but his companionship and endless affection go beyond the heartstrings of friendship -- especially for individuals with mobility challenges.
"Service dogs give people the confidence and ability to be more independent and also help them to do things they could not do by themselves," says Noel King, president of MidAmerica Service Dogs' Foundation, a Hinsdale-based nonprofit group responsible for training and placing specially trained mobility service dogs who help their two-legged owners navigate home, school, work, recreation and community venues.
"Service dogs can help level the playing field, especially for children who are now able to join their friends in games and activities that were difficult for them to participate in before," says King, who notes the organization's dogs are trained to help balance someone as they walk, help them go up and down stairs or to enable them to get off the ground if they've fallen. "Their whole goal in life is to help their person, their human being and best friend, to gain independence."
According to many mental health experts, man's best friend also provides an array of physical and emotional health benefits -- among them unconditional love security, acceptance, purpose and a positive mental outlook.
King says children with service dogs often become more outgoing, interested in new things, are able to more fully engage with their peers, and navigate new experiences. Since 2009, the MidAmerica program has placed 17 service dog teams in the Chicago metropolitan area.
Pet ownership in general, studies indicate, can mean fewer trips to the doctor, speed recovery following an illness, enhance psychological well-being, reduce stress, improve exercise habits and offer a better quality of life. Animals can help raise self-esteem, significantly lower anxiety levels and open lines of communication.
Patti Hamel, a trainer and director of the MidAmerica Service Dogs' Foundation, couldn't agree more and says these highly trained service dogs also can be a lifeline to independence.
"It's amazing to see how a trained service dog can literally change the life of an adult or child who faces mobility challenges so they can function more independently at home, work, school and in the community," explains Hamel.
"These individually trained dogs act as a brace for those with canes, walkers and scooters, they can carry life-sustaining oxygen, open doors and pick up objects for those with little or no arm and hand function, help turn lights on and off, alert others when help is needed, open doors, drawers, the refrigerator and cabinets, press the elevator button, assist with dressing and undressing, help with shopping, retrieve items from shelves, closets and hooks, pick up objects off the floor, lift mobility impaired legs onto foot stools, the couch or bed, and much more."
Hamel says by working with their service dog, children can develop skills such as communication, motor planning, responsibility, training and patience. "The child and dog are a team like no other and their bond with one another continues to amaze us all," she says.
From puppy play to working service dog
Children and dogs are matched based on needs of the person and on tasks the dogs can perform.
Puppies start training at eight weeks of age with a MidAmerica trainer before being placed for formal service dog training through the Illinois Department of Correction's Helping Paws Service Dog Training Program at the Logan Correctional Center. Female inmates work with the dogs around the clock -- 24 hours a day, seven days a week -- for up to two years as they learn jobs, skills and the demeanor to become a successful working service dog.
When dogs graduate, they are placed with a MidAmerica trainer for community integration before being matched and begin helping a new best friend.
"It's simply amazing to see my daughter becoming more secure and independent," says Jolanta Sinagra, the mother of Olivia, 18, after her daughter received her MidAmerica service dog, Hawk, this summer. "Olivia and her twin brother, Anthony, both have cerebral palsy and are confined to wheelchairs. Hawk helps Olivia do things that I used to help her do, and Hawk includes Anthony and watches out for him, too."
For more information
The MidAmerica Service Dogs' Foundation operates with a mission to obtain, train and place service dogs free for children and adults with mobility challenges so their lives may be enhanced by loyalty, friendship and the independence the dogs can provide. Three on-staff trainers have 40 cumulative years' experience training service dogs and 50 cumulative years' experience training dogs.
Weekly training sessions at the Community House, 415 W. 8th St., Hinsdale, help service dog teams reinforce training protocols, problem-solve and master new challenges.
Contact MidAmerica Service Dogs' Foundation, Inc. at 3 Grant Square #354, Hinsdale, IL 60521, call (630) 272-8159, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The website is www.midamericadogsfoundation.org.