Pomocné tlapky celebrates 20 years of training assistance, guide and signal dogs

Illustrative photo: Mariana Figueroa / freeimages

Pomocné tlapky, a non-profit group that breeds, trains and hands over assistance dogs to people with disabilities, celebrates its twentieth anniversary this week. When established back in February 2001, it was the first such organisation in the Czech Republic. Over the decades, its staff and network of volunteers have trained nearly 250 dogs to lend helping hands – or rather paws – to those in need.

A well-trained assistance dog can perform an astounding variety of everyday tasks: open and close doors, take specific items out of dressers or kitchen drawers, fill and empty a washing machine, and so on. As such, they can take over much of the work of a personal assistant. For people with severe disabilities, they can help improve their physical and even psychological development.

Hana Pirnerová is the director and a co-founder of Pomocné tlapky, which translates into English as “helping paws”. The group trains guide dogs for the blind and companion dogs, but concentrates mainly on ones that can assist people who are unable to walk or can only do so with difficulty, she told Czech Radio ahead of the group’s twentieth anniversary.

“Mainly, our clients are people who use manual or electric wheelchairs, or crutches, to get around, at least in part. Many have multiple sclerosis, others have epilepsy, Asperger’s disease or some other form of autism, are sight-impaired or blind…

Photo: Jos van Galen / freeimages

“So, our clients are really anyone who would benefit from having a dog that can do some of the things they can’t manage. The most common thing an assistance dog helps with is picking things up from the floor.”

Every client has different needs, and so the training for dog also varies. There are guide dogs for the blind, assistance dogs for the disabled, signal dogs for the hearing impaired and deaf, who can alert them if a baby is crying, or call for help if someone is having a seizure (due to epilepsy or diabetes).

But the most demanding and time-intensive training of dogs is for those helping people with severe disabilities in wheelchairs, Ms Pirnerová says

“It’s a long-term process. It’s not a question of half a year, and it’s not only the dogs that must be trained but also the volunteers, who need a year of preparation before taking on the role. So, it depends on how clever and suited to the role the dogs are, but also how good the people are at training them. Altogether, it generally takes two years from when the puppy matures into a well-trained dog and is given to a client.”

While the training of dogs for the blind is fully paid for by the state, the education and training of assistance dogs for the physically and mentally disabled is not, so Pomocné tlapky relies on private sponsorships, donations and subsidies.