Finn and Jackson

Richard Lord, CEO of Assistance Dogs Australia, writes about the ways in which dogs help people with special needs.

Last December, Finn met his new best friend for the very first time, a yellow labrador named Jackson. Eight-year-old Finn had been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, and his parents had been considering an assistance dog to help bring Finn out of his shell and encourage his expressive language. The family had been travelling to the NSW South Coast when they happened to drive past the Assistance Dogs Australia (ADA) office in Heathcote, Sydney, and subsequently contacted them to apply for a companion dog for Finn.

ADA raises and trains labradors and golden retrievers to help people with special needs. Each dog takes two years and $27,000 to train, after which they are placed free of charge with their recipient. The charity receives no government funding, and relies on donations, sponsorships and fundraising activities. Recipients include adults and children with C4 quadriplegia, paraplegia and developmental disorders such as cerebral palsy.

ADA relies heavily on volunteers to raise and train pups. Dogs are eight weeks old when they arrive at the ADA training centre and start the first few weeks of their training with puppy socialisers. They are then placed with a puppy raiser for 12 to 14 months of basic obedience training and socialisation. The pups accompany their raisers everywhere, be it supermarket, cinema, public transport or on errands. When they are 16 to 18 months of age, the dogs return to the national training centre for intensive training, which involves spending a couple of hours each day learning the 40 commands they will eventually master, and going on trips to public places.

Samson, a 12-month-old black labrador, is being raised in South Australia with volunteer Annette, who takes him to training once a week and gives him exposure to day-to-day distractions such as grocery shopping and weekend markets. Later this year, Samson will return to Sydney for the intensive training and assessment to determine what type of assistance dog he will become.

ADA receives about 50 applications for dogs each year, all of which are assessed by senior trainers who decide whether the applicant meets the criteria for receiving a service or companion dog. Once a match is made, trainers travel with the dog to the recipient's home to teach them the commands to use for their dog to perform the tasks they have been taught. Trainers spend five to seven days with the recipient when placing a dog, and follow up with phone calls. For the first three months a temporary licence is issued to recipients, then the trainer returns to conduct a public-access test, after which ownership may be transferred to the recipient. The recipient signs a deed of assignment, agreeing to feed their assistance dog high-quality food and ensure regular veterinary check-ups.

There are three types of assistance dogs. Service dogs go to adults with physical disabilities, and have full public-access rights. They are trained in tasks such as retrieving dropped items, opening and closing doors, pressing buttons at traffic lights and lifts, and barking an alert if their owner falls out of their wheelchair or is in danger.

Companion dogs are trained to support an adult or child who would benefit from having a dog such as Jackson in the home environment. These dogs can help with communication difficulties, provide emotional support, and help break down barriers and reduce social isolation.

Facility dogs are placed in aged-care facilities, child and adult hospices, group housing and educational institutions, to benefit residents and students by enhancing emotional and physical wellbeing. ADA recently placed facility dog Benson at Lake Illawarra High School in NSW to interact with students who have special needs and help create a calm environment for them.

Companion dogs such as Jackson allow their recipients freedom and independence and enhance their quality of life. Finn's confidence and emotional stability has developed in leaps and bounds. Jackson acts as an emotional regulator for Finn when he is upset or distressed, and can calm him down simply by sitting quietly next to him.

Jackson will spend the next eight to 10 years as Finn's companion, sleeping in his room at night, being there when he wakes up, and waiting for him at the end of the school day – and it's Finn's responsibility to make sure Jackson is fed each morning. Jackson helps keep Finn positive and motivated, and ADA hopes to share many more happy tales such as Finn's in future.

For further information, visit www.assistancedogs.org.au or call 1800 688 364.

Photo: Finn and Jackson.

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