27 Apr 2021

Many with disabilities waiting 5 years for an assistance dog

From Checkpoint, 5:52 pm on 27 April 2021

The demand for an assistance dog has skyrocketed, with people living with a disability waiting an average of five years to get a dog.

There are 63 families on the Assistance Dogs New Zealand Trust waiting list - but each year only 10 dogs graduates from training to homes.

- Video by Nick Monro

With no government funding - the $75,000 it costs to train and place a dog over its working lifetime is paid through donations.

The sun was shining down on Phillipa and Natalie Hall as they played in the garden of their Muriwai home. 

Ten-year-old Natalie lives with autism and epilepsy and - as her Mum, Phillipa, explained - it makes life complicated. 

"She still doesn't really understand danger, so she runs away and will run in front cars, into water, runs up to people, runs up to strangers and touches them which can be a bit embarrassing." 

"We got to the point where it was so dangerous and so stressful we really just stayed home. And if there was something we had to do my husband and I would split and one of us would take the boys or go wherever it was and the other one would stay home with Natalie.

That was where their dog Rufus came in, as her restraint - keeping her out of harms way by being tethered together whenever they were in a public place. 

The idea came to Phillipa when she stumbled across an article a few years ago. Three and a half years later they got Rufus. 

He had only been a part of the family of five for two years, but he had changed their lives. 

"Now we go places that other people just think are normal like going to the zoo, going to the beach, going for a walk."

"Last weekend he was out in the backyard at my parents place and he started barking - and he never barks, I've heard him bark in his sleep and that's it - so we went out and had a look and Natalie was halfway over the fence." 

Natalie gained not just safety, she also had a new best friend. 

"She doesn't mind because he's her buddy. It's not like when you're a parent holding her hand and she's getting grouchy and wants you to let go, with Rufus she's just like 'hey, it's my mate'."

Puppies being trained to become assistance dogs for people with disabilities.

Puppies being trained to become assistance dogs for people with disabilities. Photo: RNZ / Nick Monro

Others in need of an assistance dog face about a five year wait, however, and waiting is a problem - 90 percent of the people in need of one are children under 12 living with autism and other disorders like diabetes and MS. 

Assistance Dogs Trust fundraising and communications manager Alex Williams said demand for the dogs was outstripping supply. 

"The demand from the sector is huge and we're entirely self funded so at the moment we simply can't keep up with the real need, so one of our dogs is life changing... and as we raise awareness about what we do more families realise this is a tool for them, but until we can catch up funding our programme... we just can't fill the need quick enough so that waitlist is growing."

It costs $75,000 to train a dog - and for the trust that money was mostly coming from people sponsoring the puppies for the first 18 months of their life. 

It was only then that training would begin, with only about 10 dogs graduating each year. 

Last year, Covid-19 reduced that number down to just two dogs, so they were expecting even bigger delays this year.

The dog also had to be right for the family it was placed with.

"There have been examples where a client has a certain disability and a dog comes through that is just showing so much strength that would suit them, so they get that dog then," Williams said. 

"Or there's someone that might be right at the top of our waitlist, they've been there for a while but their needs are so specific or their environment is so specific that we just don't have a dog that's going to work."

After five years the Chalks are still waiting for their match. Sebastian, known as Bas, is eight-and-a-half and lives with non-verbal autism and severe anxiety. 

He is a keen adventurer with a big personality, and can be found barefoot on his swing, trampoline or riding his bike at home in Silverdale, where he lives with his sister Izzy and Mum and Dad Emily and David.   

Emily said life would be much easier with an assistance dog to help their family. 

"It's very difficult to go to crowded spaces, you know, he's never been on a plane ... he doesn't sleep through the night very well - never has, I don't think I've had a proper night's sleep, well, since he was born." 

She knew an assistance dog was right for them years ago. 

"I just actually will get quite emotional thinking about it because I saw this boy and he was two years older than Bas and him and his mum were walking down the street and he could do the things that Bas couldn't do and the dog was so helpful to them with him being more comfortable in those situations. 

While waiting for a dog, they moved to a more fenced in property and changed Bas's school. 

The biggest frustration was watching Bas grow up without the support he desperately needed, Emily said.

"We've kind of had to get on with our life and decide whether we move on and do other things or whether we wait you know for that long."

The trust was hoping to find them a match as soon as possible, but they were juggling the backlog created by Covid-19 last year and working with limited funding. 

The Chalks hoped the dog would arrive before Emily, who was acting as Bas's carer, left for the airforce next year.