From very early on, I knew that I wanted to get a dog to support Lil Z, our daughter with multiple disabilities. I firmly believed (and still do) it would improve her life. It became my obsession. Our journey started with a whole lot of research. I read anything I could find and spoke to organizations that provided assistance dogs, dog breeders, dog trainers, and a very helpful woman who uses an assistance dog herself. Nearly every one I spoke with was convinced that their approach, their breed of dog, their programme was best for us. In Australia, a fully trained, registered assistance dog costs around $25,000 – so it’s not something to go into lightly. Add to that the responsibility for caring for the dog, and it wasn’t something we wanted to rush into. I realized that Lil Z isn’t a typical candidate for an assistance dog. In fact, what we really wanted was to pick-and-choose amongst the skills of several different types of assistance dogs: one that can provide companionship, alert us when she is having a seizure, and help control some of her behaviours, such as calming her when she is upset and stopping some of her repetitive movements. We also wanted to choose our own breed of dog. Our daughter spends a lot of time rolling on the floor and requires medical equipment, so we didn’t want dog hair everywhere. The dog would also need to be big enough for her to be able to reach it from a wheelchair – a dog sitting on her lap was not an option. And we needed a dog that was both intelligent and extremely good with children. We decided that a good choice for us would be a golden retriever – standard poodle cross (called a Groodle or Goldendoodle). After more research and lots of emails and phone calls, I had found us a Goldendoodle breeder and a dog trainer who not only had experience, but also understood what we were trying to achieve.
When the litter of puppies arrived, we spent considerable time choosing the right one. There is no way to know for certain which puppy would be the best assistance dog, so we looked for a puppy that responded well to Lil Z. After two visits, we chose our puppy, and a few weeks later, Ben came to join our family. Unfortunately, Lil Z had a major seizure the morning after Ben arrived and instead of bonding with her new puppy, she spent the week in hospital. However, Ben stepped easily into the role of supporting Vegemite, our older daughter – and they have since formed a special bond of their own. Starting immediately after Ben arrived, we’ve been working hard to make him what our trainer calls ‘bomb proof’. He has to be able to go everywhere without getting scared or anxious. So from a very early age he has been out and about with us – going for walks, the school run, out for coffee (I’ve personally ensured he has no fear of cafes or cappuccino machines), and anywhere else we go. He has also been attending training classes to learn his obedience basics. At 9 months, he is a friendly, social and (mostly) well-behaved dog. So, we’re now preparing to increase the intensity of the training and begin to focus on his role as an assistance dog. Its too early to tell if we will be successful in training Ben to a level where he can become a registered assistance dog, able to go everywhere with Lil Z. It is not easy – it is a learning process for us, as well as Ben, and is incredibly time-consuming. At the end of the day, we will get out of it what we put into it – which sounds great but when managing jobs, two children (one with special needs) and all the rest, practicing dog commands can sometimes slip.
Despite the uncertainty, we don’t regret getting Ben. He has become (in the words of our trainer) a ‘family therapy dog’. He is already helping with therapy activities and learning to calm Lil Z with his presence. And he enthusiastically cleans her up when she’s been sick (we call him the vomit response dog). His love and devotion to Vegemite gives her emotional support, which she needs as the sibling of a child with special needs. And the rest of the time, the two of them just have lots of fun. He fills the gap of playmate that has been left by Lil Z’s disabilities. Ben’s happy – and often just plain silly – nature cheers up everyone and he’s always good at lightening the mood after a hard day. Taking him for walks or playing with him in the garden blows away the cobwebs and makes you feel better. And we all love to have a cuddle with him. It has been hard work and will take a lot of dedication and time over the next year or two. But choosing Ben to be our DIY assistance dog has been the right choice for us.