Changing lives one dog at a time

Raven, Ryder, Rufus, and Rocco are in training with trainer Tracy Huff to become Assistance Dogs. Times photo: Wayne Martin.

Wrangling four black Labradors for a photoshoot was no easy feat.

They’re inquisitive, playful and full of energy.

But in between belly scratches and tug-o-war, these dogs have a very special job ahead of them.

Rocco, Raven, Rufus and Ryder are in training to become assistance dogs to help individuals whose lives are impacted by disability.

All in various stages of their six month training programme, they are learning basic obedience, social behaviour training, home behaviour training and specific task training.

“These dogs change lives. They give people living with disability the care and support they need, and also give them some of their independence back,” says trainer Tracy Huff.

Assistance Dogs NZ caters for a broad range of disabilities including Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism and even diabetes.

“Everybody’s situation is different which is why individualising our dogs’ training is very important,” she says.

Tracy says they look at what each dog is naturally good at, and play to their strengths.

She says some dogs have a flare to do certain things which lends itself to certain tasks.

“One dog might make an excellent autism support dog, while another might be perfect for someone with diabetes,” she says.

Before they begin training each pup is assigned to a specific client and their training is refined to meet the unique needs of their new owner.

“Does the dog need specific go-get-help training? Does the dog need to be trained to be on the bed at night for comfort? Does the dog need to be trained to find a child who has wandered off?

“Or does the dog need to be trained to sit beside a child while they play because they don’t have any friends?” says Tracy.

She say’s the earlier a child gets an assistance dog, the greater the benefits.

“About 90 per cent of our clients are children which is great because the dog is there to help them during their key stages of development, which can make all the difference,” she says.

Ryder has a very special job ahead of him. Following six months of training, he will go on to assist a New Zealander living with disability. Pictured here with Assistance Dogs NZ trainer Tracy Huff.

Assistance Dogs NZ is a non-government funded charity, so they need your help.

They rely on donations from the community to breed, train and place assistance dogs in the homes that need them most.

“Unfortunately we are growing faster than we can meet the demand. We currently have a three-and-a-half year waiting list for our dogs,” Tracy says.

“We have so many people who need the help that an assistance dog can give, but we simply don’t have the money, resources or trainers to get that many dogs out to people,” she says.

But she says community donations and puppy sponsorship’s go a long way.

For as little as $5 a week, you can help raise and train one of the assistance puppies.

The Puppy Sponsorship Programme aims to support the essential costs of breeding and raising assistance puppies.

Most of the costs involve veterinary care, nutrition, training equipment and support for volunteer puppy raisers.

  • Find out more about sponsoring an assistance puppy here.