Helppes: training dogs for people with physical and mental health disabilities

Zuzana Rajtrová, photo: archive of Helppes

The Prague-based NGO Helppes trains assistance dogs for people with disabilities. Established in 2001, it trains about 15 service dogs a year and is the only organization of its kind in the Czech Republic which has achieved the high standard required for membership in Assistant Dog Europe and Assistant Dog International. For this week’s Panorama I went to see one of its dog handlers, Zuzana Rajtrová, to find out more about how it works.

Zuzana Rajtrová,  photo: archive of Helppes
“So first of all we communicate with the client who is asking for a dog – we need to know the client’s needs and the kind of lifestyle they have. Then we start looking for a suitable dog for them. We look for a dog that is approximately one-year-old, we do not train puppies for financial reasons. In the Czech Republic the government does not give us any money for assistance dogs, although the state fully covers the cost of guide dogs. But for assistance dogs we do not get anything, so we need to find sponsors and donors in order to be able to give these dogs to our clients for free because a trained assistance dog costs approximately 250 thousand crowns and out clients are not able to spend that kind of money.”

You said that you need to talk to the client to find out what kind of things they will need help with –what kind of help can assistance dogs provide?

“The standard assistance they provide is opening doors, helping to dress a person, open a wardrobe, get the laundry out of the washing machine, pick things up from the floor and hand it to the client and for wheelchair users –the dog can help by bringing the wheelchair. There is a small soft ball attached to a rope, they grab the ball and drag the wheelchair over. So if a client is going to sleep, the dog will help get them from the wheelchair to the bed, take the wheelchair back where it belongs, switch out the lights and good-night!”

Wow! And I understand the dog can also bring the owner food or medicine?

“Of course. In order to do that we teach the dog to follow a laser pointer because if we send the dog to open the fridge or open a wardrobe he cannot know what it is that we want from there. So we teach them to follow the light to the fridge and once they open the door we use the light to show them what we want from inside and they are able to bring it.”

So in addition to the pointer you teach them a certain amount of words – commands – how many words does such a dog respond to?

Illustrative photo: Jos van Galen / freeimages
“From us they usually know about 30 to 40 commands, but if the client needs something extra we teach them that as well. For instance if the client takes pills on a daily basis, feels bad and needs to take their medicine which is kept in the wardrobe he can send the dog to bring it. We can teach the dog to recognize pills. We teach the dogs commands tailored to clients’ needs.”

How long does it take to teach a dog all of this?

“The shortest time is half a year, but it is generally eight months to a year. Because some clients have combined handicaps and so the dog needs to learn more things and it takes a longer time. Because it is not just a question of teaching a dog to do something but to be able to recognize the different commands. For instance if I send him to being me something and he starts undressing me instead, it’s no good. He has to recognize what I want.”

How do you motivate them? Do you give them…

“Give them food. Yes, all of them love to eat. That is why the most frequently selected dogs for this are Golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers because they love to eat.”

So they get a reward-every time they do something right?

“Of course, of course. There needs to be motivation. For some dogs food is not so important as a toy. If they have some favourite toy that they will do anything to get then that’s their motivation. And food they will get regularly. But for the dogs that love to eat it’s a never ending story – they can eat all day, all night, so it is really easy to work with them. They will do anything for a piece of food. Also if they love to eat it is not so hard for them to accept a new owner. Because dogs like German shepherds, they usually have just one handler and don’t form close ties to others. But with Golden retrievers and Labradors they are like – Ok, you have food – I’m yours!”

I was going to ask what breeds are most suitable for this, but clearly if you train a dog for a specific client you pick the dog in accordance with their needs or preference-is that right?

Zuzana Rajtrová,  photo: archive of Helppes
“Yes, that’s right. First we meet with the client and then search for a dog which is best suited to their needs and also to their lifestyle. Some clients don’t go on any trips, they don’t climb or move around so much so they need a dog which is calm and will be happy at home, sleeping, a dog that needs to be petted and fed. That is the perfect dog for them. But other clients, like people with autism are often active. They go on trips, they travel, so they need a dog which is strong and energetic, but also obedient. Obedience is necessary in every dog, not just assistant and guide dogs but in every dog.”

But from what you said –you teach them to respond to a laser pointer – so the person need not necessarily be able to speak in order to give a command…

“Yes, we also have clients who are unable to speak and for this purpose we use a clicker or toys that make sounds. They are important because you need to attract the dog’s attention. Once you have done that you use the pointer or even sign language for example. ”

Which breeds are the best at picking up these tricks?

“I think every single dog is able to learn these tricks, these commands, because it is a game for them. Playing is something they all love to do. And what dog can pull off their owner’s sock in the house? It’s fun and they enjoy it. I think every dog can learn to do these tricks but not every dog can be an assistant dog. For instance we would never try to train a hunting dog –because can you imagine what would happen if it saw a rabbit and started chasing it, pulling the wheelchair? Also we do not train dogs which are afraid of the city and of city sounds. We need a dog that is OK in any environment, travelling on public transport and so on. And when we give our clients the dogs we show them how to handle situations which are new for the dog and can be scary. We show them how to handle things so that they do not scare the dog even more. A lot of people make the mistake of trying to cajole the dog and saying “Oh, don’t be scared” but this makes the dog act that way even more, because it is like we are appreciating how the dog behaves and he will do it again in the same situation. So it is better to say “what are you doing? Let’s go.”

So you spend some time with the client in the first stages?

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
“Yes, when the dog is trained, after let’s say a year, the dog takes an exam. The exam is difficult – it takes about ten half hours because it is not only a test of obedience but also a test of the dog’s social skills on public transport, visiting a shopping centre, behaviour in restaurants. The dog needs to know everything, needs to know how to behave in every situation. So when the dog passes the exam we call the client to tell them the good news and fix a date when we are going to bring the dog over. And we spend a minimum one week in the place, we don’t sleep there, we go to a hotel, but we come in every day and teach the client how to work with the dog, what the dog knows from us and usually after a week or so the dog is able to stay with their new master and we can go home and train other dogs. And the clients report to us how things go. Usually I ask my clients to call me every single day at the beginning, then every third day because I want to know what is going on. Also, it is my baby and I miss it so much. I want to know how they are working together, how their life is changing, if there is some positive influence….because if you have an autistic child that has not spoken for three or four years and after three months with the dog says a full sentence then that is amazing. It means we have results and we need those results to convince the government to support us.”

I suppose that gradually the dog and its owner establish a very special relationship? The bonds must be very strong.

“Yes, they do and then it is very, very hard when the dog dies. So it is important to think of that and when our dogs become older we think about finding a dog to replace it when the time comes. When that happens you need to act fast because for the client it is something unbelievable – it is like when a healthy person loses a child. That is how bad it is for them.”

Are you able to meet demand – to give every client who comes to you a dog or do you sometimes have to disappoint them for financial or other reasons?

“We have not had that problem yet, we always try to find a solution and give a dog to all who really need it. But not everyone who asks for one fulfils our criteria. Sometimes we say no – because of some difficult family situation where the people do not know if they will stay together with the children and then we say well come back in 6 months and we can talk again, some people are clearly so selfish they would not take care of the animal and some people are slightly crazy, if I may put it like that. So we do not give our dogs to anyone. We select our clients.”

Zuzana Rajtrová,  photo: archive of Helppes
How many dogs do you train a year?

“Approximately 12 to 15 dogs a year. And I would like to invite you to our special event – a dog graduation. It’s on Sept 13th. The dogs wear graduation caps and gowns, they stand together on stage and promise they will be good assistant dogs and then Czech celebrities come and act as patrons. So as a trainer I bring my dog on stage to the celebrity and the celebrity calls the client and hands over the dog in an official ceremony. It is a great event, there is music and everyone is welcome to come and enjoy it.