Dear Savvy Senior,

Can assistance dogs help seniors with physical limitations? My mother, who's 60, has progressive multiple sclerosis and I'm wondering if an assistance dog could help make her life a little easier.

Dog-loving Linda

Dear Linda,

For people with disabilities and certain medical conditions, assistance dogs can be fantastic help, not to mention they provide companionship and an invaluable sense of security. Here's what you should know.

Assistance dogs

While most people are familiar with guide dogs that help people who are blind or visually impaired, there are also a variety of assistance dogs trained to help people with physical disabilities, hearing loss and various medical conditions.

Unlike most pets, assistance dogs are highly trained canine specialists -- usually golden and Labrador retrievers and German shepherds -- that know approximately 40 to 50 commands and are well-behaved and calm. Here's a breakdown of the different types of assistance dogs and what they can help with.

Service dogs: These dogs are specially trained to help people with physical disabilities due to multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, Parkinson's disease, chronic arthritis and other disabling conditions. They help by performing tasks their owner cannot or has trouble doing, such as carrying or retrieving items, picking up dropped items, opening and closing doors, turning lights on and off, assisting with dressing and undressing, helping with balance, household chores and more.

Hearing dogs: For those who are deaf or hearing impaired, hearing dogs can alert their owner to specific sounds, such as ringing telephones, doorbells, alarm clocks, microwave or oven timers, smoke alarms, approaching sirens, crying babies or when someone calls out their name.

Seizure alert and response dogs: For people with epilepsy or other seizure disorders, these dogs can recognize the signs their owner is going to have a seizure and provide them with advanced warning, so the owner can get to a safe place or take medication to prevent the seizure or lessen its severity. They also are trained to retrieve medications and use a pre-programmed phone to call for help. These dogs also can be trained to help people with diabetes, panic attacks and other conditions.

Finding a dog

If you're interested in getting your mom a service dog, contact some assistance dog training agencies. To find them, Assistance Dogs International provides a listing of approximately 75 U.S. training agencies on its website at assistancedogsinternational.org. After locating a few, you'll need to either visit their website or call them to find out the types of training dogs they offer, their service area, if they have a waiting list and what upfront costs will be involved.

Some agencies offer dogs for free, while others might charge several thousand dollars.

To get an assistance dog, your mom will need to show proof of her disability, which her physician can provide, and she'll have to complete an application and go through an interview process. She also will need to stay at the training facility for a week or two, so she can get familiar with her dog and get training on how to handle it.

It's also important to understand assistance dogs are not for everybody. They require time, money and care your mom or some friend or family member must be able and willing to provide.

Send your senior questions to Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of "The Savvy Senior" book.