Helppes: Helping people live more independent lives with an assistance dog

Chevy the assistance dog

Helppes is a non-profit organisation based in Prague that trains and matches assistance dogs to clients who have varying disabilities. I took a trip to their training facility to learn more about what they do, and the impact their work has on the lives of their clients.

If you’ve ever walked down the street and spotted a person walking with a dog in a brightly coloured vest, you probably knew it was an assistance dog – a specially trained pup that helps individuals with physical disabilities that use a wheelchair or are visually impaired, but also people with autism and post-traumatic stress disorder. The range of disabilities that assistance dogs can help with are broad, and one organisation in Prague – Helppes, is training these dogs that are then matched with clients’ specific needs. Dušan Pospíchal, a member of the supervisory board at Helppes, explained the matching process to me.

“They are already pre-matched to the clients whom they will serve in the future. It is important to know that each dog is unique, that each dog is different. We have dogs for PTDS, epilepsy, blind and visually impaired people, people in wheelchairs, and individuals with diabetes. So there are a lot of diseases that we prepare dogs for, and of course, each individual is different.”

Helppes was founded by Zuzana Daušová in 2001, and as Dušan explains for Zuzana, at the time when she founded the organisation, assistance dogs in Czechia were mainly trained for people who were blind or visually impaired.

A few of the other assistance dogs in training. | Photo: Amelia  Mola-Schmidt,  Radio Prague International

“Until the time Helppes was established, only guiding dogs for visual impairments were being trained in the Czech Republic. Zuzana was training guiding dogs, but she got information from abroad that there are other dogs that can be trained for people with physical disabilities, and people who are deaf. Since she was working in an organisation that prepared guiding dogs, there were also dogs which were not okay to be guiding dogs, but would be better suited for another kind of assistance. Zuzana was not okay with the fact that these dogs were going to be given to people even if they weren’t suited for them, so she decided to open her own organisation, and to offer people dogs for several disabilities.”

Since then, Helppes has been working to train dogs for a wide range of clients, and they prepare them for two different categories, as Dušan explains.

“Assistance dogs in principle are divided into two categories. One is the guide dog, they are for people who are blind or visually impaired. Assistance dogs are for people who have a different disability, like diabetes, PTSD, epilepsy, in a wheelchair, heart attacks, and comas - those are assistance dogs, and that’s the difference between the two.”

“According to the international standards, the dog has to be trained for 180 hours, so in principle, the preparation of assistance dogs takes between 6 to 8 months. Of course, there are some special skills like pulling up someone’s head, that demand more work, but it doesn’t mean that the dog will be trained half a year more.”

Those international standards are important to adhere to, as Helppes prides itself on providing a high level of service.

“We are one of the first organisations certified by the ADI – which is Assistant Dog International. This means that we give a high quality service with standards of excellence. Each trainer and volunteer is well educated in the work, and of course the people who work here are very sensitive.”

In order to train the dogs well and prepare them for service, Helppes works with both puppy raisers and trainers, and the two work closely together, as Dušan says.

“We can say that Helppes is really like a big family, because we have trainers and puppy raisers, but they are all connected to each other. The puppy raisers should not be without the trainers, and the trainers should not be without the puppy raisers, since the puppy raisers prepare the dogs for the trainers. How the puppy raisers prepare the dogs for the trainers shows them how the dog will work in the future.”

The cat who helps habituate the assistance dogs with other animals | Photo: Amelia  Mola-Schmidt,  Radio Prague International

Hana Kocvrlichová is one of the trainers at Helppes, and she has noted that over the years, the most common dogs they are training are ones that specialise in post-traumatic stress disorder, as Dušan explains for her.

“At the moment, we are training a lot of dogs for post-traumatic stress disorder. The people are typically older, but it is very sad stories we encounter because these are people dealing with violence or abuse in their families, and it is mainly girls, so this is very problematic.”

The training facilities at Helppes are quite interesting, they have a simulation home where the dogs learn how to open doors, ovens, and even get clients out of bed, as Dušan explains.

“Imagine you have someone in a wheelchair, the person should not be making movements like opening the oven, so the dogs are trained to do this, and we also train them how to open the washing machine.”

There are even animals such as cats, chickens, and a mini horse at the training facility that help the dogs get acclimatized to being around other creatures, so they are calm and composed when they are ready for service, as Hana explains.

“In principle if you have a dog and a cat, they always fight. But an assistance dog should not chase a cat. So the cat is here so the dogs can habituate to it. We also have chickens and a mini horse, because you have to take into consideration that if someone is disabled and has a dog, and goes in the street and meets a horse, the dog cannot be shocked or excited, it has to work. So we have several animals here so we can habituate the dogs to be OK with animals.”

The work that Helppes does to train assistance dogs is impactful, and Dušan recalls the story of a young boy with autism whose life changed significantly after getting an assistance dog.

“I will tell you a story from eight years ago. I met one guy, he had autism, and he did not communicate, he was shy, he didn’t walk because autism can have a combined disability since sometimes people can have a problem with walking. He got an assistance dog, within two years, he was talking, and he opened up like a new day. And it’s because of the assistance dog, who is there for comfort and to cuddle. They are working seven days, 24 hours, 365 days a year, they have no holiday.”

The mock home where the dogs are trained on how to open various things such as doors,  ovens,  and so on. | Photo: Amelia  Mola-Schmidt,  Radio Prague International

But while it’s clear that these dogs are making a difference, Dušan says that there is still discrimination in society around people who have assistance dogs, a sign that more education on the nuance and complexity of disabilities is needed.

“People who are not visually impaired are faced with discrimination, because people do not understand why a young lady might have a dog with an assistance dog vest on. She might have PTSD for instance, and this a problem. There is a lack of laws and regulations that will tell people that if a dog is wearing a vest like this, it is a person with a specific kind of disability which may not be visible.”

Helppes is a non-profit organisation and relies primarily on the donations of sponsors and donors. While the work may be difficult, both Zuzana and Dušan are happy to give their clients the support they need to live a better, more independent life.

“The most rewarding thing is that we can train a dog that will help people to live a better life.”