For more than 35 years, I have relied on a wheelchair for mobility, because I am 1 paralyzed from the waist down. But while a wheelchair gets me from point A to point B, I often require assistance with daily tasks, such as getting in and out of bed, answering the phone, picking up dropped items, turning light switches on and off and more.

That's where Whistle comes in. Half Labrador retriever, half golden retriever, Whistle is my service dog and companion, trained to do everything from picking up a dime off the floor, to retrieving the last sock in the dryer, to helping me roll over in the middle of the night.

While most people are familiar with guide dogs that assist individuals who are blind or have partial vision loss, there are a variety of assistance dogs trained to help those impacted by hearing loss, spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, psychiatric illness, diabetes and many more medical conditions…

  • Service dogs assist their human owners by carrying or retrieving items, pushing buttons (for example, on an elevator), opening and closing drawers, assisting with balance while dressing, helping with household chores and more.
  • Hearing alert dogs alert individuals with hearing loss to specific sounds, including phones, doorbells, sirens, smoke alarms, crying babies or other humans.
  • Seizure alert/seizure response dogs respond to epileptic seizures—they may be trained to pull an emergency cord, lick their owner's face (to arouse him/her) or retrieve the phone (or push a call button) for a 911 call. Dogs can be trained to help with other chronic medical conditions as well, such as heart attacks, strokes and panic attacks. Some dogs possess the ability to predict a medical event such as a seizure or detect changes in blood sugar and will become restless or push against their partners to warn them.

Companionship And Security

Assistance dogs provide true companionship and an invaluable sense of security. I considered myself independent until I met my first service dog, Ramona, in 1993. Yet before that, I wasn't driving—I was too worried about dropping my keys in a parking lot and not being able to pick them up...or of falling while getting in and out of my car. Ramona empowered me to get behind the wheel.

If you have a medical condition and think an assistance dog may be for you, ask yourself, Could having an assistance dog enable me to be more independent? If the answer might be yes, consider whether…

  • You can physically care for a dog.
  • You are able to care for the dog or provide alternative care through a family member or friend.
  • You can afford the dog. This includes food, pet insurance and veterinary care. Keep in mind that an assistance dog requires more frequent vet visits and higher-quality food than a regular pet.

Contact different assistance dog training agencies to find out their policies and which will meet your needs best. Visit my organization's site,, for a list or try the sites of Assistance Dogs International ( for certified assistance dog agencies and International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (www., an advocacy group for people with disabilities who use assistance dogs.

What to consider: How quickly will you be able to bring home a new dog? Will you ultimately own the dog, or does the agency retain ownership? What up-front costs are involved?

Some agencies offer dogs for free, and others may charge more than $15,000.

Getting Your Dog

If you decide to use an assistance dog training agency, you'll need proof of your disability your physician can provide this) and will have to complete a written application, interview and home visit. Potential owners may need to be able to travel to and stay at the training facility, where they'll often participate in a multiweek "boot camp with their dogs. And of course, it takes time to "learn your dog-for example, its temperament and how it responds to commands. It took my first dog and me one year to truly feel in sync...with my second dog, the bond was instantaneous. It can take up to a year or longer to complete the entire process.

Owning any animal is a serious commitment. But the daily care and financial responsibilities pale in comparison to the new freedom, security and companionship you'll experience.

Rx for Drug Shortages

A record number of drugs, including certain medications for cancer, high blood pressure and anxiety, were not available in 2010 due to manufacturing and quality problems, production delays and products being taken off the market. The trend continued in 2011. Although conditions improved in 2012, shortages still occur. Ask your doctor whether any prescriptions you take may be in short supply in the future. If so, ask if an alternative within the same class of drugs can be prescribed if needed. The FDA maintains an up-to-date listing of current shortages at

Unfortunately, a drug shortage could lead to a rise in drug counterfeiting

To protect yourself: Purchase your prescriptions from reliable sources, and always examine the product, its packaging and the color of the tablets or capsules. Report any changes in the appearance, taste or drug side effects to the FDA.

Want to Keep Reading?

Continue reading with a Health Confidential membership.

Sign up now Already have an account? Sign in