A dog for all cases

Assistance dog Bayou gives the wash to Mirjam Spinnler with his mouth  (FIDES)
Assistance dog Bayou helping to hang the wash (FIDES)

Bayou is no ordinary dog; he is an assistance dog who helps his owner – a wheelchair user – in dealing with everyday things. She received Bayou from FIDES, completely free of charge and already fully trained. FIDES is a young nonprofit organisation that professionally trains assistance dogs and gives them free of charge to people with mobility impairments.

The assistance dogs are trained in a town called Riehen, near Basel, Switzerland, by Natalie Corman. The Canadian, who has been living in Switzerland for over 20 years, qualified as an assistant dog trainer in the U.S.

Love and independence

By providing support, the assistance dog gives people with disabilities a lot of their independence and flexibility back. This means for example that the person does not need to wait for the help of the people from Spitex (Swiss organisation, which provides home assistance to people with disabilities or illness) to assist him/her getting undressed and climbing into bed. An assistance dog can even help with small things like picking something up off of the ground or removing cloths from the washing machine.

Dog and owner form a tight team, so sometimes situations arise where words are unnecessary: "After a long and exhausting day, I wanted to give Bayou the evening off and call the Spitex to help me go to bed so that he could have a rest. Bayou, however, without being called, came and helped me into bed" recalls Miriam Spinnler Bayou’s owner.

People with a mobility disability, whose quality of life would be significantly improved by an assistance dog, may submit a request to FIDES. Thanks to donations made to Fides, the dogs are given to the recipients free of charge; the new owners must only pay maintenance, costs like food and vet bills.

N. Corman practices pulling out a drawer with a budding assistance dog (FIDES)
Drawers are also not an obstacle any more with an assistance dog (FIDES)

Strict trainer

Natalie Corman, initiator of the FIDES Assistance Dogs Association, places particular value on the 1:1 introduction of a future team dog / trainer. In this way, training can specifically match the needs of the owner.

"After a team has successfully bonded, they must pass a practical exam, in accordance with international standards," says Mrs. Corman. These tests are important in order to ensure the success of the team.

Corman has always stressed the importance of consistency during the dogs training. "The dog is like a child, sounding out its limits. If he is allowed to get away with something once, he remembers it, "Corman says with a smile.

Not every dog is suitable

Future assistance dogs are selected already as puppies. Anxious or nervous dogs are not suitable; similarly, dogs that are not curious or eager to learn are also unsuitable.

If a puppy passes the entrance test, it goes to a host family for one year, where it learns not tug on the leash, not to be afraid of cars and noise and to ignore other dogs while he is being worked with and much more.

The dogs are trained with a reward system. When a command is executed correctly, the dog gets a (small) food reward. As time goes on, some stroking or a verbal reward is sufficient.

It is also important that the dog enjoys doing the new tasks. If it becomes clear that the puppy has no interest, or pleasure in people, or jobs, the training has to be stopped, unfortunately.

Assistance dog tugs on the jacket sleeve of his owner (FIDES)
An assistance dog helps with everyday obstacles like taking of a jacket (FIDES)

The owner is the alpha animal

The prospective new owner is also examined closely. "It’s useless if the dog is trained perfectly, if the owner cannot enforce its orders." The dog must see the owner as the alpha animal.

The owner must also be able to care for the dog. "The owner must guarantee that the dog will have at least one hour off per day and with a free run," said Mrs. Corman. "Anyone who works 100% will hardly have enough time to satisfy the dogs’ needs."

The animals are in no way exploited. As the dog and the owner form a team, it is also required from the holder that he or she is considerate to the wishes and needs of the dog. Natalie Corman’s perspective: "Pure family dogs can be bored quickly because they are under-challenged. But an assistance dog takes pleasure in his work and learns new things his whole life." A dog can almost not have a more varied and exciting life than as an assistance dog.

Natalie Corman tests a puppy with a towel
Natalie Corman carefully chooses the puppies (FIDES)

Under the patronage of the Swiss School for Guide Dogs Foundation

"Unfortunately, from time to time we do not have enough guest families," says the dog trainer regretfully, however: "as we are under the patronage of the Swiss School for Guide Dogs Foundation, we can train adult dogs (and puppies, as long as there is a guest family for it) from there and train them to be assistance dogs".

The training commands are given in French. Mainly because French as a Latin language is more syllable-rich and thus the commands can be more easily differentiated by the dogs, thus making it easier for them to understood. This also has the positive side effect that children or other people cannot confuse the assistance dog at work by giving him commands like "sit down", or “come here”, etc.

The 52 basic commands such as „Apporte!“ (Bring) can be extended limitlessly. Which one of these he will really need in his capacity as an assistance dog, or which ones will need to be extended, depends on the needs of its owner.

Requirements for an interested candidate are responsibility, and ability to lead and keep a dog species-appropriate as well as meeting the requirements of the invalidity insurance provider. The candidate must also be able to give the dog clear oral or visual signals.

If you want to learn more about FIDES Assistance Dogs or consider the purchase of an assistance dog, visit the Web site or contact Natalie Corman directly. Also, host families for puppies are always needed.

Text: MPL - 08/2010

Translation – pmc 08/2010

Pictures: FIDES