International Association of
Assistance Dog Partners

Service Dog Partnership in Finland

by Ritva Lehtio

During a warm July week end 14 service dogs and their partners with friends attended their summer conference in Lehtimäki, which is a small village far from everywhere but also as near to everyone: the distances in Finland are long but don´t really disturb anyone.

I live in Turku with my husband and Roope, the service dog. He is a golden retriever and one of the first five who began their work six years ago in our country.

The conference was organized by the Finnish Service Dog Association. It was founded in 1995. The members are persons who have service dogs and all others who want to support the organization. It is quite small, because there are 25 service dogs and partners thus far.

The dogs have gained much publicity here, they have shown their abilities on TV, their partners have been interviewed on nationwide and local radio broadcasts and many articles have been written on the teams.

The aims of the Association is to act as a connecting link between persons having service dogs, to act as an advocacy group, to organize annual meetings and conferences, to collect funds for activities… The purpose of the annual summer conference is to learn something new about dog training and to discuss about experiences and to have fun. It seems very easy to have fun when dogs´ friends meet. There is also a more challenging part: a certifying test is organized – every team must pass it every second year.

The new topics this year included Marja´s and Leena´s (the Finnish service dog trainers) review on their visits to American training centres. It was interesting to hear of IAADP and its activities, and Joan Froling's training work.. Videos were shown [by Joan ] to complement and show task-training practices in detail.

As for methods, clicker training was introduced this time.

Project Incorporates a National Certification Test

Service dogs have been trained in Finland since 1994. Now there are 25 skillful dogs at work - every year five dogs start with a partner who needs specialized help in different daily activities. The service dog project is one of the activities of Invalidiliitto ry (The Finnish Association of Disabled People) which is the largest organization for physically disabled persons in this country. The project is financed by the Finnish Slot Machine Association. Owing to this unique basis of financing most Finnish non-profit organizations are not dependent on charity allowances.

In Finland assistance dog training is sectioned. Different organizations are responsible for training guide dogs and hearing dogs. Guide dogs have been working for decades. Hearing dogs are a new group.

A guarantee of good service dog work is a certifying test, which was developed a couple of years ago. The test performances are accepted by a judge certified by Invalidiliitto. Every new team must pass the test at the beginning of their companionship and then every other year. If someone wants to get a status of service dog for one he has trained himself, he can attend the test and if the team passes, the dog is allowed to work as a "professional".

The idea of the test is to prove the co-operation of the team. Willingness to serve, special skills, obedience and ability to function in different surroundings are weighed. All the trained teams have passed thus far. This summer the first dog trained by his own partner attended the test and passed all right.

Finland's System Today

Service dogs have two trainers. Marja is the pioneer of the training in Finland. She was the best – and only – trainer for a couple years. Then Leena started with her. Marja takes care of the basic training and Leena of the common functioning of the dog and human partners.

The basic training takes six months and after that all pupils specialize for the individual needs of their future partners. Persons wanting to get a service dog can apply for one any time.

The northernmost parts of Finland are beyond the arctic circle, about 1000 kilometres from the southern border. The trainers visit every aspiring partner of a service dog – they are used to long distances on routes with snow and ice in the winter and deep forests around.

The application form charts all relevant information. After being accepted, the applicants are interviewed. And then the partner just waits for the dog until the next training course which are held once a year. The five new teams attend, but older ones also participate if possible. This gives a possibility to exchange question and answers, experiences are valuable. During two weeks the new teams practice common skills. Finally they attend a certifying test and after this they begin their new life together.

Every new team has a support person somewhere near. These persons are dog trainers or other dog activists and can give valuable advice and support.

The dogs are own by Invalidiliitto. The partners get their service dogs free of charge, but they must pay all the maintenance costs, also vet. bills. One of our aims is to find public financing for these costs.

There is a long waiting list for service dogs in Finland. They serve adult persons in wheelchair and others with difficulties in mobility.

The program receives the dogs from breeder donations and other sources. Part of them are bred by Marja. The puppies live in voluntary foster homes until they are about 1 year and then they start their school life.

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