MACHIAS, Maine — A new course being offered this fall at the University of Maine at Machias will teach students the intricacies of matching canine companions with people dealing with disabilities ranging from blindness to Alzheimer’s.
Kathy Hecht has a degenerative back problem and gets around with the help of a sturdy Irish wolfhound service dog that helps her maintain her balance and assists her with mobility. Long before a car accident left her disabled, Hecht was training dogs to help meet the needs of those with disabilities. This fall she will share her insights with students in Machias and, through an interactive television network, remote students throughout the state.
“The list of disabilities that can be assisted by well-trained service dogs continues to grow,” Hecht says. “It ranges from blindness, deafness and wheelchair assistance to medical alerts for seizures and Alzheimer’s. Dogs for Alzheimer’s patients can be trained to help reorient them, so that they remember where home is, or to search and recover a lost phone or lost keys.”
Hecht’s course is designed to meet the needs of both disabled persons who use service dogs and those who are interested in training and matching service dogs with those whose quality of life could be improved with the companionship of a service dog.
“The general public confuses service dogs with therapy dogs, which are a world apart,” Hecht says. “Service dogs are specifically trained to aid a disabled person, while therapy dogs are well-behaved dogs that bring joy to people they visit in a nursing home or a hospital. Under the Americans With Disabilities Act, service dogs have complete public access, which therapy dogs do not.”
Hecht’s course covers service dog “etiquette,” which requires that a service dog in any public setting be, in effect, invisible.
“Service dogs should be quiet and unobtrusive and should not disrupt anything or anyone, regardless of where they are,” she says. “All of which is the responsibility of the service dog owner.”
Her course explores how different breeds of dogs match up with would-be owners with disabilities in what ideally, she says, is a “dovetail fit.”
“An ideal match starts with looking at the client’s needs,” Hecht says. “If someone has asthma, you look for a dog that doesn’t shed and has low dander. If the client is living on a fixed income, you don’t choose a breed that needs to go to a groomer every six weeks. If someone’s joy in life is watching their grandchildren play T-ball, baseball or soccer, you need a service dog that is ball-averse, so that if the dog sees a ball, it’s not going to react at all.
“If the client lives in a very rural setting and needs wheelchair assist, a motorized wheelchair may not work well in tall grass, so you need a dog with a lot of pulling power to help that handler move a wheelchair,” she says. “You also have to look at what the client’s patience level is. Some breeds learn quicker than others. They can do the same tasks, but by their genetics they are conditioned to do them in a number of different ways.”
Hecht’s class includes both a lecture segment and a laboratory segment. The lab sessions include working with service dogs and potential service dogs.
“The lab involves partnering a student with a disabled handler and a dog they have in training,” she said. “While helping the handler, the students train themselves.”
The course’s final project involves what Hecht terms a canine “freestyle performance.”
“It’s basically dancing with a dog, which involves an obedience and behavior routine to music,” she says.
A resident of Searsport and a native of Massachusetts, Hecht is working on a master’s degree in social work through the University of Maine’s satellite classroom facility in Belfast. Her career goal is to work in the field of animal-assisted therapy, which involves both dogs and horses.