Dogs can be more than man's best friend—they can be lifesavers. From Chihuahuas to Labrador retrievers, dogs are increasingly complementing modern medicine, learning to defuse panic attacks, carry juice bottles to diabetics with low blood sugar, and even dial 911. "So many people with disabilities or medical conditions could benefit from a dog, and they don't always realize it," says Darlene Sullivan, an animal trainer who founded the nonprofit training group Canine Partners For Life in Cochranville, Pa.
Dogs like those paired with people who are blind or hearing-impaired are specifically trained to head off problems and to detect and ease symptoms among those with conditions that put them at risk or compromise their life skills, such as paralysis, seizure disorders, and diabetes. Others make a difference simply by being there. College students who spend time with a dog are less likely to report feeling depressed and find that dogs help them cope with stress, according to a study published in Society and Animals in 2008. At Kent State University, "canine therapists" visit campus dorms, a program particularly popular among those lonely for a family pet. And Penn State University's counseling department employs Ernie, a year-old Affenpinscher who sits in on therapy sessions and spends one-on-one time with students. Ernie's presence makes those with mental and emotional issues feel better about seeking help, counselors say.
Dozens of groups train and provide helpful canines, sometimes for free, but it's up to those who think they might benefit to seek one out. Here's a sampling of conditions and situations that make use of dogs:
Physical disabilities. Groups like Canine Partners For Life (CPL) train dogs to assist with those who have arthritis, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, and spinal cord injuries. They provide balance and support to someone who has trouble walking and lend their retrieval skills. "Bending over and then standing back up can cause a lot of pain," Sullivan says. "We train dogs to retrieve anything from a dime on the ground to a gallon of milk." And for people confined to a wheelchair, dogs can open and close doors, push elevator buttons, and help their patients navigate from the chair to the bed. The group typically provides Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, and standard poodles. Training is tailored to each recipient's condition. CPL spends roughly $22,000 on each dog—the group breeds some puppies and rescues others from shelters—and requests a $1,000 to $3,000 donation, depending on ability to pay.
Autism. New research suggests that dogs reduce anxiety and improve socialization skills of autistic children. After dogs were placed in 42 children's homes, their stress-hormone levels dropped and they had fewer outbursts, according to a study published last month in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology. "One mother told us she wasn't able to take walks with her autistic son because it was just too difficult," says Sonia Lupien, the study's senior researcher. "But after the dog joined the family, they could all walk together. Something happened between the boy and the animal—a connection formed." The nonprofit 4 Paws for Ability trains dogs to respond to behavior typical of autistic children: If a child jumps around and flaps his hands in the dog's face, for example, the dog will lay its nose or foot on the child, gently nudging him until he calms down. And the dogs are trained to stop and sit at the parent's request; doing so encourages the child to stop, too, which can be particularly helpful if, say, a child has a tendency to bolt across busy streets without looking both ways.
Diabetes. No matter how well people with type 1 diabetes manage their disease, hypoglycemia—or low blood sugar—is always a danger that can lead to seizures, coma, brain damage, and even death. Dogs are being trained to identify subtle changes in body scent caused by hypoglycemia and alert their handlers 20 to 60 minutes before an episode occurs. That allows time to fend off the attack with juice or a snack; some dogs even learn to carry these objects to their handlers. Hypoglycemia can be particularly difficult to detect at night, when a diabetic is asleep. If a dog realizes that its handler's blood sugar levels are dropping, the animal will scratch or create a commotion until that person wakes up. Though these odor changes are undetectable to people, dogs have a keen sense of smell that's at least 50 to 100 times more powerful than a human's. "These dogs can keep diabetics from getting into very dangerous situations," says Breanne Harris, assistant program director of Dogs4Diabetics. The nonprofit provides Labrador retrievers to about 30 insulin-dependent diabetics each year; availability is currently limited, but the group plans to expand. There's an application process, and only those who have been on insulin therapy for at least a year and are age 12 or older qualify. Though training each dog costs about $20,000, they are provided to diabetics for free. "Type 1 diabetes causes a lot of anxiety. It's not something you can just forget about," Harris says. "When you have a dog, you're not alone with your disease anymore—you're working on it together."
Alzheimer's disease. Dogs can soothe the agitation so common in Alzheimer's patients and improve their social skills, too. They're often adopted by a unit or wing of a nursing home so patients can play or cuddle with the animals. "[Patients] feel like they can interact with the dog without any worry," says Mara Baun, coordinator of the doctorate nursing program at the University of Texas Health Science Center. Of more than 10 studies Baun has directed on the medical benefits of animal companions, five involved Alzheimer's patients. She recalls a man with severe Alzheimer's who bonded with a golden retriever at his nursing home; the two often played ball together in the courtyard. One day the man grew agitated, pacing the hallway, rattling locked doors to the outside and refusing to respond to staff members. "All of a sudden, the dog took him by the cuff of his shirt, led him back to his room and stayed there with him," Baun says. Patients often respond best to goldens and Labs because of their easygoing temperaments and trainability.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Research suggests veterans with PTSD experience fewer symptoms and need less medication when paired with dogs. The canines help veterans ease back into society by sensing panic attacks before they begin, gauging the safety of surrounding areas, and jolting their handlers out of flashbacks. A noisy, crowded restaurant might make a veteran panic because he associates crowds with snipers, hidden bombs, and other dangers, for example. But he has been taught to touch his dog, and that sensation helps bring him back to the present. And he looks to his dog to determine whether his fear is realistic. "A veteran will do a body read of [his] dog to see if there's any evidence of danger in that situation—like if [its] tail is between [its] legs, or [it's] emitting a low growl," says Joan Esnayra, founder of the Psychiatric Service Dog Society, a research and education group. It's instinctive, she says: "Dogs have exquisite sensory capacities. They can smell things we can't smell, see things we can't see, hear things we can't hear. Dogs are very sensitive to danger." The turning point is when the veteran believes his dog and not his initial PTSD-induced reaction. "That's a victory," says Esnayra. Some groups, like Operation Wolfhound, founded two years ago by an Army veteran, believe so strongly in the dogs' abilities that they provide dogs to veterans at no cost.
Epilepsy. Seizure-alert dogs detect slight changes in body chemistry that signal an oncoming attack and warn their handlers by whining or pawing the handler's leg to buy enough time to take antiseizure medication, reach a safe place, or call for assistance. Exactly how dogs sense oncoming seizures is unclear, but it's an instinctive ability that cannot be taught—only identified and encouraged, experts say. About 20 organizations nationwide provide seizure-alert dogs, charging recipients anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000.
Crisis survivors. Crisis-response dogs are trained to be patient and affectionate, look directly at people, and remain calm in chaotic, unpredictable situations. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the shootings at Virginia Tech, Hurricane Katrina, and other tragedies, HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response therapy dogs were on the scene. "We provide comfort and encouragement and help people relax, rejuvenate, and reconnect," says Amy Rideout, the nonprofit's president. This month, for example, a HOPE team spent two weeks at a California elementary school where there had been a playground shooting. "Our dogs were the bridge that helped those children retake the playground," Rideout says. "One student told us she felt really safe with Oz, who happened to be a very large dog. That steady presence made her feel comfortable, and took her focus off the bad stuff."