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Down Syndrome and Man’s Best Friend

Dogs are known as man’s best friend for a good reason! They can be everyone’s best friend, thanks to their intelligence and loyal nature. This is proven by the way they are now becoming service dogs and helping people with Down Syndrome.

While dogs have helped visually impaired people for many years, through organisations such as Guide Dogs for the Blind, using service dogs to help people with Down Syndrome is relatively new. Dogs are being trained as assistance dogs all over the world and many people are reaping the benefits of having a trusted canine companion.

Down Syndrome child with dog



Life with Down Syndrome

People with Down Syndrome can face many challenges in their day-to-day life. Having a dog not only makes life easier, it also makes it more magical, particularly for a child.

Challenges faced by children with Down Syndrome can include developmental and intellectual disabilities. They can also be at a greater risk of some health problems, although every person is different, and they will not have the same medical conditions.

Almost 50% of babies born with Down Syndrome will have congenital heart disease, while more than half have impaired vision. Up to 75% of children with Down Syndrome have some degree of hearing loss. The condition can cause some problems with the immune system, or it can lead to hypothyroidism – reduced hormone levels.

Down Syndrome can also result in poor muscle tone, known as hypotonia. This can lead to the delays in sitting up, rolling over, crawling and walking that some children with Down Syndrome experience. Many children also have disrupted sleep patterns and other sleep disorders.


Benefits of service dogs

Service dogs trained to assist people with Down Syndrome can make a major contribution to their life. There are three different types of assistance dogs: Emotional support, service, or therapy animals. Each type of dog is trained differently to best fulfil its owner’s needs.

The Service Animal Association describes a service dog as one who helps the owner to complete tasks they would be unable to perform alone due to their disability, while the emotional support dog’s purpose is to improve the health of his or her owner.

A therapy animal works with its owner to improve the health of others. Patients are referred to the therapy dog and its owner for regular therapy sessions, rather than the dog being owned by the disabled person.

Dogs that assist people with Down Syndrome perform two functions: helping with physical tasks and providing emotional support, so their role crosses over the two defined categories.

Most service animals are dogs, although there are other types of service animal, such as ponies. A service dog can assist their owner in many ways. They can guide people who are vision or hearing impaired, alert other people if their owner is having a seizure, retrieve dropped items and perform useful tasks for their owner.

Service dogs can be trained to carry out jobs around the house, such as loading clothing into the washing machine, opening doors and cupboards, fetching their owner’s medication or food, or getting the mail. Dogs are so intelligent that they can be trained to complete any task of which they are physically capable.

Service dogs have a special legal status and should be able to accompany their owner everywhere throughout their daily life. They should be allowed in restaurants, in shops, on aeroplanes and in any other public place where dogs are not normally allowed. Anyone who refuses a service dog access may be breaking the law.


Training a service dog

Training a service dog properly, before it is settled with a family, is crucial to its success. Assistance Dogs UK, a coalition of eight dog charities in Britain, organises the dogs’ training. Currently, there are some 7,000 disabled people who are living with a service dog in the UK.

The organisation trains dogs to the high standards set out by the International Guide Dogs Federation and Assistance Dogs International. Training is complex and it includes instruction in all aspects of the dogs’ behaviour.

Accredited assistance dogs, who have passed the rigorous training standards of Assistance Dogs UK, have a safe and reliable temperament and have been taught to behave well in public places. They are fully trained to carry out various tasks which will be specific to the person they are assisting. They are healthy dogs, who are regularly checked by a vet for any issues.

Service dogs are often rescued from an animal shelter or are bred in a selective breeding programme and raised by a volunteer before they are trained. The majority of service dogs are Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers, but any breed of dog can be a service dog, as long as it has the correct temperament.

There is no set time to train a service dog after they’ve finished their early socialisation. The programme has a clear training plan for each individual dog.

Adult dogs complete specific training schedules, including obedience and task work, for one to two hours per day for about six months. Then, they are matched with their potential future owner.

All of the assistance dogs provide a bespoke service for their owner, greatly improving their quality of life and giving them a new sense of independence and companionship.


Effects on the family

Service dogs have a positive influence on their owner, as well as on the family of a person with Down Syndrome. In the case of children, the dog can exert a calming influence.

According to research among families with a service dog, the child usually wants to remain near the dog and is less prone to wandering off. One mother said she was able to tether her young child to the dog, making activities such as shopping trips easier and safer.

Service dogs have also accompanied children to leisure activities, such as swimming lessons. The dogs are described as adding “an element of joy” to the household.

In many cases, the dogs are only around eight weeks old when they first meet the children. It’s particularly important for a service dog looking after a young child to be easy to control and not to be distracted by other dogs.

The dog is also trained in resistance, so the child can’t run off while they are tethered together. Many families have been restricted in where they can go and what they can do. Having a service dog has helped change their life, giving them more confidence and helping to calm the child when they are out.

If the child has sensory challenges and is worried about loud noises, or thunder and lightning, for example, the dog has a calming influence. The service dog trainers describe it as “rewarding” to see a dog going into a family and really making a positive difference.


Getting a service dog

Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to get a service dog, due to the particularly high demand. According to the Canine Partners organisation, there’s a long waiting list in the UK. Applicants are prioritised by their needs and more people are required to come forward to help train the dogs.

The charities involved in the scheme are appealing for corporate support to help fund the dogs’ training. They don’t receive government funding and aim to set up corporate-charity partnerships to help offset the costs.

Individuals are asked to fundraise for the charities by organising various types of activities, such as running a marathon, or any kind of sponsored event. Trusts and foundations are also providing funding to build new training centres for the dogs to make the service more widely available.

The difficulties in getting a service dog aren’t just a problem in the UK. The scheme also operates in New Zealand, where the wait is around two to three years.

Assistance Dogs New Zealand is a charitable trust that was set up in 2008. It trains around 10 dogs a year to help children with all kinds of medical conditions, including Down Syndrome, autism and diabetes.

The hard-working service dog charities in the UK say donations are always welcome, no matter how small, to help make a difference to the lives of disabled people.

Children with Down Syndrome can experience sleeping problems, with 40% of seven to 11-year-olds struggling to settle down at bedtime and 51% waking during the night. Kinderkey offers a range of safe sleeping solutions for people of all ages.

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