Assistance dog worth her weight in gold

Leo (7), Tiffany (4) and assistance dog Caz.

We all know the saying – dogs are a man’s best friend. Now that friend is being put to work, with assistance dogs proving vital in rehabilitation and helping develop life skills.

Dr Gretchen Good is a senior lecturer in Rehabilitation in the School of Public Health at Massey’s College of Health. Dr Good and her husband Dan Nash adopted baby Leo in 2008 and, three years later, added three-month old Tiffany to their family.

Both children have Down syndrome, and other related heath complications. Leo, now seven, is vision-impaired, and doesn’t speak, while both he and four-year-old Tiffany share orthopaedic problems.

Earlier this year, the family welcomed a new addition, Caz, a three-year-old black Labrador, specifically trained for the family through Assistance Dogs New Zealand.

Dr Good, herself, used to be blind but regained her vision after a staggering 23 operations. “While it hasn’t been a barrier to me in developing a career, getting a PhD and moving to New Zealand from the USA, I don’t want my kids’ disabilities to be a barrier for them. And that’s where Caz helps.

“We thought long and hard about the pros and cons of adding a canine family member to our lives. We know at times it can be hard work, but we believe she will add to our quality of life.”

And she already is, says Dr Good. “Caz is worth her weight in gold. She has made it easier to stop the kids from running off, especially in dangerous places like car parks. She has improved their exercise levels and helped with Leo’s chronic stomach troubles. Walking more has improved both kids’ sleep, which in turn improves our sleep.”

Caz helps Leo and Tiffany by providing love, affection, acceptance and companionship.

It's a dog's life ... with some different challenges

And there are other advantages to having a furry companion. “Her main job is to keep the kids safe but she also has the job to provide love, affection, acceptance and companionship to Leo and Tiffany. She can be a social magnet, attracting other children and promoting positive relationships. Leo and Tiff are different and sometimes other children and adults see those differences as negative or something to be afraid of. Now they have a best friend in their dog and may get more friends because of Caz.”

But it’s not all fun and games for Caz and the kids. “We work hard on sign language, speech therapy, reading, writing, social skills, dressing, eating, vision-related therapies for Leo, music therapy, dance and swimming lessons. We want our kids to have every opportunity for an independent, happy, productive life. Caz can add even more enrichment to their lives, help keep them safe and help us be better parents.

“Our children can’t develop independence in a natural progression because of their physical limitations like vision, hearing, speech, fatigue and low muscle tone. Caz can provide actual physical assistance and can motivate a tired child to keep going. She can even alert us if someone wakes in the night or falls.”

Dr Good says Caz is also helpful at medical appointments for the kids. “She can provide a distraction during medical procedures and motivation during speech therapy. And it’s been proven reading to a dog provides great benefits. A child sitting next to a dog, petting their fur, while reading aloud literally lowers blood pressure and other stress factors.”

The Good Life - Leo, Dan Nash, Dr Gretchen Good, Tiffany and assistance dog Caz.

Paying it forward

Caz is an assistance dog, which is different from a therapy or companion dog. Assistance Dogs New Zealand, a charitable trust since 2008, has about 23 working dogs throughout the country, mostly helping children in families. They train eight to 10 dogs a year for all types of disability.

Founder Julie Hancox graduated with a Post-graduate Diploma in Rehabilitation from Massey University in 2005. She says, “It has been an extremely rewarding journey, meeting families that are struggling in so many ways to help their children that have a disability to learn and grow now, so that they might find a secure place in society in the future.

“Seven years on we have children that have progressed from being tethered to their assistance dog for safety reasons, to handling their assistance dog independently whilst accompanied by a parent or guardian. That’s a big development from a child that once couldn’t be trusted to not run impulsively out onto the road.”  

Julie Hancox says the waiting list for an assistance dog is around two years with families asked to help raise money towards the cost. “Each family raises money, which then goes towards their own dog’s completion of training and the start of training for another dog for the next family in need. It really is very much a ‘pay it forward’ system.

So far the family has raised just over $9000 via Give A Little. Dr Good says the $20,000 target is a bit overwhelming but estimates that the service for each team over their lifespan will cost around $50,000. “We are not fundraisers. We are parents. Anything people can do to help is so gratefully appreciated.”

You can donate via Givealittle here:

All donations go directly to Assistance Dogs New Zealand. For more information on Assistance Dogs New Zealand:

You can watch Gretchen Good and her family on One News' Good Sorts here: