Dogs reporting for duty!
Assistance dogs offer a helping paw to their humans, supporting them to live a happy and healthy life.
Often assistance dogs are associated with seeing-eye dogs helping people with vision impairments. But there's a whole pack of dogs out there doing noble work for their owners with disabilities. From medical response dogs to hearing support dogs, these skilled companions devote their life to working for their owners.
Olivia and Nellie
As an assistant dog, Nellie’s job is to support Olivia with the anxieties and stresses of life with autism. While Olivia is normally scared of dogs, she felt only love towards Nellie from the moment they met in June 2017.
“Nellie settled incredibly well into our quirky family,” says Julia, Olivia’s mum. “Each morning, Nellie has a blast racing around at the beach with a stick in her mouth. She equally enjoys suiting up in her work jacket for her very serious role of supporting Olivia in the community – we are incredibly grateful to have her in our lives.”
Supporting Olivia in the community can take many forms. In twenty years, Olivia has never felt confident enough to be away from her Mum or Dad while shopping. Now, with Nellie by her side, Olivia is quite happy to potter about (mainly in the confectionary aisle!) while her parents do the supermarket shopping. When they are finished shopping, a short command – "checkout" – will see Nellie take Olivia over to the checkout. “Before I had Nellie I couldn't cope very well at the shops,” explains Olivia. “I would say, 'Where's Mum? Where's Mum?' But now I don't because Nellie is with me."
Nellie also helps Olivia with her paper run. Rain, hail or shine, Olivia will deliver the local paper up and down the street. “It's usually a pretty slow, laborious task. Olivia has a quirky habit where she likes to tap particular letterboxes over and over before she will allow herself to move on,” explains Julia. “Since Nellie has been accompanying Olivia on her paper run, there has been no more letterbox tapping. We asked Olivia the other day what happened to her tapping routine and she replied, "Nellie was 'borned' for me, Mum. Nellie helps me not to get stuck because she just keeps moving."
And when Olivia turned 20 years old, Nellie celebrated with her at the zoo. “She didn't bat an eyelid when the baboons started grunting at the sight of her,” says Julia. “She was a wonderful support for Olivia when it got a little crowded at times.”
“It has been amazing to experience the impact Nellie herself has had on the people around us when we are out and about. We’ve kind of grown used to people staring and whispering when we pass them by, but with Nellie, it seems people like to smile and engage us in positive conversation instead – it’s great!”
Nellie is equally supportive to Olivia at home, and takes everything in her stride. Olivia hates the sound of coughing – it gets right under her skin. When her dad, Craig, recently had a cold and was coughing a lot, Olivia got very upset and anxious. Nellie decided to help out by resting on Olivia's legs and the weight of Nellie's body helped bring down Olivia's anxiety and restore a sense of calm. “We love the way she gently steps in when we are weary and helps Olivia in her own, special way,” says Julia.
Nellie’s gentle presence helps Olivia through bad nights, firework season, watching movies, and anything else Olivia can find overwhelming. "Her calming nature is matched to lavender, honey and chamomile," says Olivia.
It’s safe to say Nellie is well-loved and very much appreciated.
“Olivia is benefiting so much from her daily interactions with Nellie – the unconditional, nonjudgmental love and companionship Nellie provides is more than we could ever have wished or hoped for.”
Eli and Taffy
Best friends come in all shapes and sizes. For 7-year-old Eli, his best friend comes in the shape of golden Labrador named Taffy.
Eli is a son, a brother, a student, and a friend. Eli was born with Cerebral Palsy and uses a wheelchair to get around. He requires 24-hour care by his mum Simone who sadly lost her husband when Eli was just a year old.
Eli doesn't have any oral language so building networks and friendships can be challenging. But when the family welcomed Assistance Dog Taffy In August last year, there was an instant friendship between the two.
Taffy has not only changed Eli's life by being a friend that will always be there for him, but he also takes some pressure of his mum Simone.
"Knowing that Taffy is always by Eli's side, I am able to carry on normal daily household chores without having to have Eli constantly in my sight. I know that if he is ever in trouble, Taffy will come and fetch me," she says.
Taffy walks alongside Eli's wheelchair and even attends school with him which means that he is never alone even when he is unable to join in in some of the classroom activities.
Taffy is always around to be a playmate of sorts to him. "Taffy will pick up Eli's toys and give them back to him or the teacher aid," says Simone.
Having an Assistance Dog for Eli is something that definitely has changed his whole family's life, but the biggest life change is that Eli will always have someone by his side.
“Seeing Eli's face light up when he sees Taffy is just so wonderful to see as well as all the endless cuddles they have for each other.”
Vicki and Ada
After being told by the local dog club that she wasn't trainable, 5-year-old Ada went on to become a diabetic response dog for mum Vicki.
"We didn’t get Ada with the intention of her becoming a medical response dog — we hadn’t planned for her to be anything other than a family pet," says Vicki. “But after being told by our local dog club that Ada wasn’t trainable (because she is a husky!) we looked for an alternative place to take Ada for basic obedience classes.
"We chose to work with Flip Calkoen who, at the time, was Head Trainer for an organisation that was looking at training Diabetic Response Dogs (DRDs). Flip suggested we train Ada to become a DRD as she had the right sort of qualities for an Assistance Dog and she and I worked well together.
"We got an amazing chance to train her ourselves under Flip’s guidance. Ada passed all the necessary tests within one year — just after her second birthday."
Now, Ada is a fully-qualified Medical Response Dog, with amazing skills. She can detect changes in Vicki's blood sugar levels up to 45 minutes prior to the change taking place and has been trained to alert Vicki when she senses a change – preventing Vicki from going into a diabetic coma.
“I chose to train Ada so that when she senses a change she gives what I consider to be a ‘public-appropriate’ response – a firm nudge and hold with her nose on my body. Often when Ada nudges me and I test my blood sugars they might look good to me. However, I have learnt to trust her senses — I will find that a short time later my blood sugars will start to either trend up or down.
“I have also trained Ada to bring my blood testing equipment to me. She knows she is allowed to get this from anywhere – but she knows that putting her paws on the bench, or rummaging through a bag is not otherwise allowed. Ada will also open our kitchen cupboard and bring me a small container with some lollies in it in case I am unable to get to food for whatever reason. She is very persistent. If I don’t respond to her she will keep nudging me (they can be very firm!) and she will seek out another person and take my blood sugar testing gear to them if I do not respond.”
Unlike some other types of working dogs, when Ada is with Vicki she works 24/7 – she constantly monitors Vicki and goes everywhere with her. But Vicki makes sure to give Ada opportunities to be away from her so she could have rest time too.
Vicki is currently a stay-at-home mum so the pair spend most of their time at home. Previously Vicki worked in a large office, and Ada would accompany her to work every day. Ada has adjusted well to “working from home” and her nurturing side has really come out around Vicki’s son.
“We all go on daily walks and she and I go about daily ‘mum’ life together,” says Vicki. The pair are also part of the SPCA Outreach Therapy Pet team and volunteer out in the community, visiting rest homes, rehabilitation centres and other facilities.
“I feel very blessed to have Ada in my life and hope that she can help others as much as she has helped me. Ada changes her demeanour based on what each person is wanting from her, and she’s got many fans. She clearly loves visiting; she gets excited the night before when I pack her bag and bandana, asking to go outside so she can wait by the car! I have to remind her she needs to have a good night’s sleep first before we can go!
From a puppy rejected from training classes, to a fully-trained medical response dog – Ada has achieved wonderful things!
“Ada has changed my life more than I anticipated. Ultimately, Ada’s abilities mean that my body is under much less pressure from fluctuating blood sugars and my body and overall health is much better for it.”
Jacqui and Jasper
Five years ago, Napier-based Jacqui was in a really bad space. But the arrival of Jasper changed all that.
5-year-old Jasper spent the first year of his life shunted from home to home, unwanted and uncared for. He was eventually given to Hearing Dogs New Zealand who began to train him up to be a hearing assistance dog.
At around the same time, Jacqui bumped into someone with a hearing dog and began to do some research. She soon got in touch with Hearing Dogs New Zealand who matched her with Jasper. Now, Jacqui can’t imagine being without him.
“Life for me has always been a struggle. When I got Jasper, my whole life changed,” says Napier-based Jacqui. “Before Jasper, I was angry all the time because I felt alone. But Jasper provided me with constant support. Through him and Hearing New Zealand, I also found the Hearing Association and was able to talk to people who understood me.”
With his bright yellow jacket, Jasper goes everywhere with Jacqui – to restaurants, appointments, on the school run, and on the plane. Because Jacqui can get quite a fright if people come up behind her, Jasper will let her know when someone is approaching. He will also accompany her to meetings with the Napier Committee Hearing Association, which Jacqui is now part of.
“One of the biggest parts of Jasper’s role is to get me out there. Being a deaf person, it’s easy to stay at home where it’s safe. Jasper knows when I am struggling anxiety-wise, and helps me feel comfortable out and about. He encourages me to talk to people.”
When Jacqui and Jasper arrive home at the end of the day, Jacqui takes his work jacket off. But Jasper knows he is still “on-call”. He is trained to alert Jacqui when there is someone at the door, and when a family member is yelling for her. He will let her know when the phone is ringing and will act as an alarm clock in the morning, waking Jacqui up with a few kisses. If that fails, he will dig at her until she awakes.
But perhaps the most important skill of Jasper’s is alerting Jacqui when a smoke detector goes off. If the alarm sounds, Jasper will wake Jacqui and then drop to the floor as still as a statue. That way, she knows it’s no ordinary wake-up call. This means Jacqui can sleep at night, as she can rest assured Jasper will wake her up if needed.
This training came into action about four months after Jacqui got Jasper. “I had to go into the City Council building, and we were waiting for the lift together. As it reached our level and opened up, Jasper dropped to the floor. He wouldn’t budge. I then realised that a fire alarm was going off – it turns out there had been some builders in who had accidentally set fire to something. Thanks to Jasper, I was able to get out safely. He did his job perfectly.”
“Jasper takes his job super seriously. He works hard, but I make sure he gets to be a dog too. Every morning we go for a 30 minute walk together. We also go to schools together so that he can teach children to be kind and gentle with dogs. I’m so lucky to have him. He’s my blessing.”