I had morning tea with someone special this week. I sipped on English Breakfast tea while he woofed down bite sized pieces of kangaroo sausage. Yep, you read that right. You see, the special someone I had morning tea with is a Labrador puppy named Ice. Ice is a puppy in training with Assistance Dogs Australia and is currently living with our close friends.
I’ve heard many stories of how Assistance Dogs have helped our Facebook families and I was keen to learn more. Fran from the organisation came along to morning tea to tell me about what’s involved for those who volunteer, who the organisation helps and more about the program.
Our friends are volunteering to raise and train Ice under the supervision of Assistance Dogs Australia. The family are total dog lovers but their motivation to volunteer came about after seeing the benefits their niece, who has a disability, has gained since having her own assistance dog.
BECOMING A VOLUNTEER
There’s currently a waitlist of 140 people eagerly anticipating the arrival of an assistance dog. Shortening the waitlist requires volunteers to assist in the training and raising of these puppies. Volunteers need to have time available, not only to spend with the puppy at home but to socialise the pup out in the community. The dogs are being trained to be with a person, so the puppies need to have company. In the first 6 months, they are not to be left alone longer than 2 hours at a time and after 6 months of age no longer than 4 hours at a time.
Volunteers get support from Asisstance Dogs Australia and have a visit once a month from a trainer. If a family volunteering is going on holiday or need a break, there are carers available to provide respite. Vet bills, food and training is all covered by the organisation at a cost of approximately $31,000 per puppy.
WHO RECEIVES THE TRAINED DOGS?
There are four programs within Assistance Dogs Australia which fulfil various needs in the community.
1. Assistance with physical disability
Helping a person with a physical disability like cerebral palsy, paraplegia, quadriplegia and similar. The dog is trained to physically assist the person. This may be assisting a person with picking items up, opening things, turning lights on etc. Apparently, they can even be trained to pack and unpack the washing. Interesting that a dog can be trained in this, yet other family members in this house cannot!
2. Autism assistance.
In this case the dog would read body language and intervene in the case of a meltdown or when there was a trigger for the person. Interacting with the dog provides a way of refocusing the person, provides tactile stimulation and can provide an ice breaker in the community. Fran told me a story of an Assistance Dog recipient with autism who had not spoken in 9 years to his neighbours but after getting his dog he did.
3. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
I had not heard that assistance dogs are now being used to assist some military personnel and police officers who are suffering PTSD. Often these people are isolated from the community, may suffer from triggers and the animals can help. Fran used an example that some people can be fearful of the dark after a traumatic incident and the assistance dog can be trained to turn on a light before the person enters the room.
Ten dogs have been placed with couples where one adult has dementia. The assistance dogs provide help to both the person with dementia and the partner/carer. Fran told me how the dogs can allow a carer to have greater independence to go out. A trained dog can prompt a person with dementia to drink or take tablets at a given time when they are alarm trained. Fran also said that they’ve had feedback from couples saying that the dog has provided a common interest and helped with the person with dementia having a focus in the present day.
A RECIPIENT FAMILY’S PERSPECTIVE
Rebecca, mother to Abby who has an Assistance Dog, shares the benefits she has seen.
”We’d never heard of Assistance Dogs before and thought that all service dogs were for the blind. Upon investigation, we discovered that Assistance Dogs not only train and supply dogs to help adults with disabilities but also children like Abby.
After one year on the waitlist, Jemima came to us as a Support Dog and very quickly settled in to life with Abby and our family.
On one of our first walks, Jemima was tied to Abby’s wheelchair and we were walking along the path at Balmoral. Abby was so proud to have Jemima beside her and for once there was a positive reason for the stares and curious looks she was getting. When we stopped for a rest a young girl approached Abby and Jemima and Abby very spontaneously asked, “Would you like to pat my dog?”
Now to many of you, this may not seem earth shattering but when you have spent years on different speech therapies, all sorts of early intervention and just general social skills and strategies for your child, this question coming from Abby’s lips was mind blowing for us and opened the door for a very natural social exchange between 2 little girls talking about a dog. These moments are now beyond measure and meaningful on many levels. During that conversation, the wheelchair became invisible and I would love to think this interaction had a positive effect on both Abby and the other girl.
Since receiving Jemima, Abby has made huge gains in many areas of her development with the most obvious being her speech and social interaction. If Abby had her way, she would do her school news about Jemima every week. Her class has heard every minute detail about Jemima’s baths, haircuts and trips to the dog park. Abby is a lot more compliant when it comes to the everyday boring tasks like having a shower and preparing for bed. Some may call it bribery, but we all know the politically correct term is “positive re-enforcement”. Motivation is the key and Jemima is always there to provide motivation when needed.
As a child who uses a wheelchair and has communication difficulties, it is often hard for Abby to instigate conversations or make a connection with a stranger, however Jemima is the ultimate icebreaker!
One of the symptoms of Abby’s condition is a susceptibility to migraine. Migraine is a word that I feel is often thrown around a bit easily however, Abby’s migraine last July led to her being hospitalised for 3 weeks with no movement down her left side for 9 days.
It was considered by her neurologist as a borderline stroke and we were very lucky that she made a 100% recovery. During this tough time for our family, it was mentioned that Abby had a dog. The therapist suggested bringing Jemima in to help with Abby’s recovery by providing an emotional boost and motivation during therapy. After a bath and groom, Jemima was brought to the hospital and spent hours lying on the bed with Abby.
While she was there, Jemima was only allowed to lie on the left-hand side of the bed, which meant Abby had to move her weak arm to pat her. This encouraged Abby’s movement and helped her regain strength in that arm. When we were finally able to get her up in a wheelchair, Jemima would go down to her daily therapy sessions and Abby would throw a ball for her and participate in other activities to help advance her rehabilitation.
I truly believe that having Jemima involved in that whole process contributed to her recovery and provided another source of comfort and support during an extremely frightening time for Abby.
I think the bond between Abby and Jemima is most evident in the way Abby is able to immediately calm down when Jemima appears. Abby can have meltdowns like any child and at times it has been very difficult to control these emotions. Even during these times when as her Mum I am unable to reign things back in, you would think Jemima would steer clear but she seems to know when she’s needed. She will magically appear and sit her head on the edge of Abby’s bed or her lap and Abby will instantly settle.
Another important role Jemima plays in Abby’s life is that she is someone for Abby to care for. People with disabilities inevitably spend a lot of time being assisted and this can take many forms. Abby loves being able to reverse roles and be the carer for Jemima. This may be by giving Jemima dinner, treats and toys, brushing her, fixing her bed or wiping the sleep from her eyes! This has helped Abby understand that everything and everybody requires care at times but just at differing levels. It has given her a sense of responsibility and satisfaction that she is just as important to Jemima as Jemima is to her. “
THE PERSPECTIVE OF A VOLUNTEER
My lovely friend Cathy, aunt to Abby mentioned above, is currently training and caring for Ice. Cathy’s family’s motivation for doing the program came from seeing the benefits Abby received from her dog Jemima. Cathy’s family have always had Labradors and it was after the loss of their beloved Percy that they looked to see if they could do the program. Cathy only has positive comments about the Assistance Dogs experience. She is thoroughly enjoying the process and is like a new Mum with a baby, always showing off Ice’s latest training and is totally besotted with her charge. I pushed Cathy to share anything that had been a challenge because I feel that anyone applying shouldn’t go into it with an unrealistic expectation. Cathy said there is very little difference between having any puppy and an assistance dog. She has had to do some reshuffling on her work days to ensure that Ice has company and has enlisted the help of other family members for these times. Cathy said it’s been good for her confidence because doing training in shopping centres she has had to explain to those approaching what she is doing and be assertive that an assistance dog is okay in public spaces. She has also had to learn patience and be prepared to accept input from someone else. At the end of the day she said that she understands that following the advice regarding training is ultimately making it easier for the person that will have Ice as their assistance dog.
Like so many organisations that provide a wonderful service, Assistance Dogs Australia is not Government funded and rely on the generosity of corporate sponsors and the public.
If you’d like to learn more about becoming a volunteer, you can do so here.
If you’d like to apply for a dog, you can do so here.
I’d like to thank Fran from Assistance Dogs, Rebecca and Abby for sharing their story and of course our friend Cathy who inspired me to write this blog in the first place. Oh and I can’t forget the star of the show, Ice!