While giant breed dogs like Newfs are not usually thought of as being service dogs, there is one area where they are particularly ideal and excel and that is as mobility assistance dogs. This type of service for physically disabled persons can take one of two forms. One way is to pull people in wheelchairs, either completely or to assist in difficult situations such as going uphill. The other form of canine mobility assistance is as a “walker dog”.
A walker dog takes the place of a walker or cane for a mobility challenged person. Even those of us who are not mobility impaired may make use of our giant dogs. Many a time I have used one of my Newfs for support when getting on my feet. I correctly put my weight over the legs, either front or rear and never on the centre of the back; this is something learned from carting and backpacking with dogs.
Training a dog for regular draft work is ideal for the transition to walker dog. Nothing is more crucial than the stand stay command, especially when you are using the canine cane to help you get on your feet. The “easy” command is also most useful to get the dog to slow down to the person’s pace; in time the adaption of the pace should, of course, become automatic.
Unfortunately in most jurisdictions, including here in Ontario, there is no legal recognition of mobility assistance dogs as there is for guide dogs for the blind. However many walking challenged people regularly use their “living canes” whenever possible.
One such person is Moe McKinnon of Midland, Ontario. Moe has a neurological condition that affects her legs and gait pattern. The condition has tentatively been diagnosed as multiple sclerosis and she wears a splint on her leg. In January, 2009, Moe and her husband Mac adopted a four year old Newfoundland named Polar Bear. She quickly found that this boy would instinctively stand still for her when she used him to help her stand up. Then when walking with him, while he would run ahead dragging Mac, Polar, after a couple of EASY commands slowed down willingly to Moe’s pace. Moe says he has been a great help especially in slippery winter conditions, on rough ground, on hills and on sandy beaches.
To further increase Polar’s ability to assist, Moe enlisted the help of my son, Allan. Among other things, Allan is an outfitter who makes custom carting harnesses. He made a harness for Polar Bear and then attached a handle on the half saddle which sits over the front legs. Moe and Polar gave the new equipment a real work out when they entered the MS Walk in Midland this past April.
Peter Maniate has been writing columns for the Newf News, the magazine of the Newfoundland Dog Club of Canada, since 1979. In 1996 he started writing a Newfoundland dog column in the Breedlines section of Dogs in Canada magazine on behalf of the Newfoundland Dog Club of Canada. When Dogs in Canada ceased publication at the end of 2011 he continued the Breedlines column in the Newf Newfs.
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