Papillons in Service

By Debi Davis

The Papillon dog can we well-suited for service work. Bred for centuries as a companion dog, the Papillon possesses one of the most important assets of a good service dog: he enjoys spending the majority of time with his human partner. It is the ultimate in human-animal bonding.

A service dog is a dog who has been specially trained to assist a person living with a life-altering disability. The person with a disability who uses a trained service dog is allowed to take the dog with them to nearly all public places, to aid the human partner as needed.

Mobility service dogs are dogs who perform tasks for persons with physical disabilities, such as paraplegia, quadriplegia, Cerebral Palsy, Arthritis, etc. Though larger dogs are required for some tasks, such as providing brace and balance, pulling wheelchairs, opening heavy doors, Papillons are still able to perform the majority of required tasks for an amazing array of disabilities.

This might include picking up objects dropped on the floor, such as pens, hairbrushes, keys or coins. Papillons can also learn to make beds, tug clothing from the dryer, put it in a basket and tug it from room to room. They can tug clothing from their human’s body, open and shut doors, drawers and cabinets inside the home, bring the telephone when it rings, shut off the alarm clock, and make the beds. From a lap, a Papillon can activate light switches, press handicap door openers, elevator buttons or hand a change purse to a cashier.

A Hearing Ear or Signal dog is trained to alert their hearing impaired or deaf owners of environmental sounds, and to take them to the source of the sound. This might be a baby crying, someone calling the owner’s name, a siren, a smoke detector, the alarm clock, the microwave or the telephone. A Papillon’s natural alertness makes him an excellent choice as a hearing dog.

A Seizure Alert dog is one who alerts his owner to impending crises, and responds in a trained way. The person living with a brain disorder, such as Epilepsy, is then given a chance to move to a safe area before an episode happens. These dogs can also be trained to respond by seeking help, or bracing their bodies on their humans, or by aspirating fluids from their mouth during convulsions. It is not known how or why some dogs just naturally seem to be able to detect an oncoming seizure, or change of blood pressure. At this point, most efforts are in shaping specific responses in dogs who are already alerting to seizures.

Psychiatric support dogs are also service dogs, and mitigate their owner’s disabilities in many different ways. The person living with agoraphobia, PSTD or panic attacks, for instance, may not have the ability to go out in public alone, but if teamed with a trained support dog, may find it very workable.

Though Papillons are well suited for service work, few are called on to perform this vital work. Large programs which train service dogs for people usually handle larger dogs only, as the programs do not know to whom the dog will live until a match is made once the dog has been trained.

They dog may be needed to pull a wheelchair, open heavy doors, or tasks for which a Papillon is not structurally suited. For this reason, we see many Golden Retrievers, Labs, and German Shepherds coming from larger programs. It’s a “one size fits all” thinking.

But smaller programs are beginning to see the value of toy breeds as service dogs. And many individuals have trained their own service dogs to assist them. In this instance, any breed or size of dog who can meet the needs of the owner’s specific disability can be chosen.

A steady temperament is imperative for the dog chosen for service work, and not all Papillons will be suitable for the rigors and stress of public work. Socialization work is extremely important for a potential service dog, and exposure to people of all ages, sizes, cultures and nationalities is a “must.”

In addition, the service dog candidate must not react to the presence of other dogs, large or small, to cats, squirrels or children running and screaming. A rock-steady temperament comes not only from good genetics, but also thousands of hours of training in public, desensitizing the dog to environmental stress.

A dog may perform tasks beautifully at home, in a known environment, but it takes training and constant exposure for the dog to confidently perform the tasks in a public setting.

If the dog is walking along a busy street with his owner, who drops the keys and has cued the dog to retrieve them, the last thing needed is for that backfiring bus to terrify the dog, sending him into the path of traffic. Likewise, in a park setting, the owner does not want the dog to be barking or lunging at squirrels when the dog is needed to remain alert and attentive to their needs.

Several PCA members are now using Papillon service dogs in their daily lives. Others are training their own dogs, or training with an instructor. It can take up to two years for a dog to be fully trained, even when the dog is of the ideal temperament for the job. But, unlike their larger counterparts, Papillons have a long working life, and can assist their owners into their teens, if sound and healthy, while their larger cousins are often forced into retirement at 6, 7 or 8 years of age.