Rheumatoid Arthritis Day, celebrated on February 2nd, helps raise nationwide awareness for the many Americans currently living with this form of arthritis. At Atlas, we’re taking the month of February to recognize how assistance dogs can help with rheumatoid arthritis maintain an excellent, active quality of life. In fact, a rheumatoid arthritis assistance dog named Turner was one of the inspirations for our organization’s formation!
Turner, a nine-year-old black lab, assists Mike Kolar, one of Atlas’ founders. Mike has lived with rheumatoid arthritis for more than two decades.
“I had been working with a for-profit organization that my daughter worked with, that did service dog training. (I helped) them with writing manuals and things like that. So, I had exposure to service dogs and had an interest in them,” Mike said. “But when I got Turner, I became a lot more interested. I realized how much dogs can do for people and what a difference it makes.”
Mike and Turner's Important Relationship
When Mike first started working with Turner, the pair focused on day-to-day functions. A rheumatoid arthritis assistance dog’s task list can include fetching or putting away shoes, picking objects up off the floor, and bracing for support when navigating stairs. Some assistance dogs are even trained to assist their handlers with the process of getting dressed, opening and closing doors, or taking out the trash!
“Those little things… they’re trivial, but they can really help people with arthritis or mobility issues,” Mike said.
As advances in medical treatments helped Mike regain his mobility over time, his relationship with Turner evolved.
“I’m an avid hiker. I live in the forest, so I go out every morning for a hike, and then again in the afternoon. We’re out a lot,” Mike said. “What’s really been a big help is that Turner will walk with me. He’ll brace to let me lean on him at different places in the trail, and he’ll walk down the hill with me and brace along the way so I can go down a steep or muddy trail.”
Turner still likes to help out around the house by putting Mike’s hat and gloves away, and his training means he’s ready to assist in different ways whenever needed.
“About a month ago, something happened with inflammation in my knee and I was having a hard time walking,” Mike said. “We went back to the old routine of him helping me and picking things up for me.”
Positive Training Methods
The Atlas Assistance Dogs training method is based around positive reinforcement and is designed to help individuals train their own assistance dog.
“Positive training works, and it’s much more effective than anything involving negative feedback or punishment,” Mike said. “We really wanted to do something where we could help people to train their dogs using only positive methods. One, obviously, it’s better for the dog. Dogs who want to work and are happy in their work want to help you because they do — or because you give them treats! They’ll pay so much more attention and provide so much more. They’ll volunteer ways of helping.”
About Atlas Assistance Dogs
Atlas Assistance Dogs is a non-profit organization that fundamentally expands access to assistance dogs. We support people with disabilities to train and certify their own service dog using positive, ethical training methods. At Atlas, we believe anyone who would benefit from a qualified assistance dog should be able to have one.
We work with people with a wide range of disabilities who wish to train their own service dog and offer a comprehensive Academy for professional trainers wanting to become service dog trainers.
Author: Emily Gertenbach
Emily is a writer, Atlas Volunteer, and definite lifelong dog person. She lives in Pennsylvania with her family, which includes a very lovable rescue mutt named Ivy.