We interviewed Mary Burch, Ph.D., director of the Good Canine Program at the American Kennel Club, and Michelle Williams, public relations coordinator at Canine Companions for Independence. Canine Companions for Independence is a national, non-profit organization that provides expertly-trained assistance dogs to children, adults and veterans free of charge.
SC: In what ways might a service animal help a stroke survivor?
Dr. Mary Burch
MB: People who have had strokes may have mobility issues, problems with memory and fine motor difficulties. Service dogs can be trained to help a person who has had a stroke by assisting with mobility — large dogs can steady the person who is wobbly; or the service dog can encourage the person to get up and walk — it’s hard to turn down a dog who wants to go outside. Service dogs can be trained to get things that have been dropped and bring them to the person, and they can be used as a part of a fine-motor physical rehab program. For example, the person with a stroke can squeeze an exercise ball, which is a boring task. They could also have a daily goal of brushing the dog, and this becomes functional rehab. Sometimes, after a stroke, the person tends to stay in the house. A service dog can provide companionship.
MW: Others may benefit from incorporating a trained service animal into therapeutic or rehabilitative exercises to help the individual meet their goals, whether they relate to motor control, speech, or ADLs. Individuals who use manual wheelchairs may also benefit from a service animal’s assistance in propelling the chair.
SC: How does someone go about getting a service animal?
MW: There are many organizations that provide service animals and interested parties can look at the Assistance Dogs International (ADI) website, where ADI-accredited organizations are listed. To apply for a service dog from Canine Companions for Independence, the first step is to learn more about our services and our assistance dogs on our website. Then, interested parties can submit a request for an application online to begin the application process.
SC: What are the potential barriers to getting a service animal?
MW: Sometimes, cost and wait times can be a barrier for people interested in receiving a service animal. Canine Companions candidates are placed on a waitlist ranging from a year to two years. Canine Companions provides its expertly-trained assistance dogs completely free of charge to people with disabilities. It is important for interested parties to carefully consider how they will meet the dog’s needs including feeding, toileting, exercise, grooming, training, covering the cost of veterinary care, and making the commitment to stay in regular contact with the organization for the duration of the placement.
MB: A common barrier is cost since the cost of a service dog can be from $10,000 to $30,000. Some agencies will advertise there is no charge for the dog. While this often means they don’t make the person with the disability pay for the dog, they may expect that there will be a fundraising campaign to raise the money that covers costs related to training and care. In cases where the dog is “free” to the service dog user, and costs are to be covered by community fundraisers or sponsorships, there is typically an agreement on the front end that specifies if the money must be paid before the dog is delivered.
Finding an available dog that is trained can be a problem. Also, if the person who has had a stroke is living alone or is spending a good part of the day alone, caring for a dog might be difficult.
Housing can also be an issue if the person lives in a no-pets apartment or a facility that cannot meet the needs of the dog, for example, no yard.
SC: Can emotional support animals be good for survivors, too?
MB: If the person who has had a stroke mainly needs company and a dog to spend time with, an emotional support animal might be fine. However, these dogs are not trained to perform specific tasks, so it should be understood that their primary job is to provide comfort and companionship.
MW: Some individuals may find that they would benefit from the relationship with an animal but do not need assistance in public spaces or through specific trained tasks. In this case, they may be interested in researching the options of getting a pet or emotional support animal. Canine Companions for Independence does not train or place emotional support animals; generally speaking, a good first step is to research local animal shelters or breed rescue programs.
This information is provided as a resource to our readers. The tips, products or resources listed or linked to have not been reviewed or endorsed by the American Stroke Association.