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Dx: Post-Polio Syndrome

Rx: One Assistance Dog, individualized for the Owner Mary Lee R. Nitschke, PhD, Portland, Oregon, --Being revisited by the late effects of polio later in life can be an isolating experience. What could a dog provide for this situation? Perhaps a better question would be, what couldn’t a dog provide?

Mary Lee R. Nitschke.jpg


The most obvious function of a dog for someone who had polio is to help with physical tasks that require strength — pushing a manual wheel- chair, opening doors, or assisting mobile folks with walking or balancing. Dogs are also handy at fetching, getting a snack from the refrigerator on cue, picking up a dropped walking cane, grabber tool, keys, or fetching a partner from another room in the house.

 Most trained domestic dogs delight in the game of “go find,” especially when it is for one of their people. The dog may perform it even more enthusiastically, if the person they find happens to have a piece of kibble they will share upon being “found.” This can be an important service task. It is a game we play every day in my household.

The tasks that a dog can perform for a person with limited mobility, strength, or balance issues are primarily limited by the creative imagination and train- ing

skills of the dog-partner team. Many service dogs have created new job descriptions on their own as they have more experience with their partner’s needs in daily living.

Research shows that their role goes beyond that of a living prostheses. The bond and comfort from having a dog at your side is almost beyond description Service dogs provide important social functions in “normalizing” perceptions of the person partnered with the dog. Is there a better welcome in the world than a smile and a wagging tail from a trusted dog? Having a partnered dog also reduces a person’s sense of vulnerability and increases their sense of efficacy. The focus is on a ‘can do’ statement rather than one of “what I can’t do.”

Which dog? 

The answer to the question of which breed or type of dog is best at this partnership is both simple and not simple. Much depends on the type of assistance the person requires of the dog. A large, tall man with balance and stability issues with some foot neuropathy and wanting to walk will require a dog of sufficient height and length of stride.

Other than physical determinants, there is no one breed or mix or size or temperament of dog that does this work best. The number one criterion when I help a client select a dog is stability of disposition. The second is responsiveness to human cues. I have worked with dogs ranging from teacup poodles to mastiff-type dogs and almost every- thing in between. The teacup poodle essentially lived in the lap of her partner who was in a wheelchair. She provided dropped key retrieval, constant companionship, laughter, boundless loving kisses, as well as a connection with the outside world. 


The most important aspect of training is the development of a common language and communication system for the owner and the dog. A service dog ideally is responsive to people, able to ignore other animals, trainable and can remain focused on the human partner and stable on task when required. Basic house manners are required for every service dog. I advocate for people to train their own service dog on a daily basis. Constant training empowers both the owner and the dog to learn new skills together as needs change over time. I believe that positive, dog-friendly training is the most powerful investment one can make.

Where to Find Help 

Look for a CPDT (Certified Pet Dog Trainer) in your zip code at or 800-PET-DOGS. Specialized task regimens may require more intricate training with a professional who works directly with assistance/service dogs. Go to to find resources at this level. Other useful resources are, and

Mary Lee R. Nitschke, PhD, a polio survivor, is a Professor of Psychology at Linfield College in Oregon. She also is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer.

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