More than mere companions, assistance dogs are often credited with offering hope in times of darkness.

Sarah-Jane* once enjoyed a life that others could only dream of. A professional fitness instructor, SJ (as she likes to be known) was paid to spend her days in the outdoors while any down-time was spent with her partner with whom she had been in a committed relationship for more than 20 years.

Yet within a week of being admitted to hospital for a routine operation, SJ would find herself under heavy sedation, unable to move her legs and with her relationship in tatters. “It was a slip of a hand during the surgery,” she says. “Within a second I had quadriplegia. I woke up from the anaesthetic and I was paralysed.”

After months of excruciating rehabilitation, SJ regained a small amount of movement in her legs and arms but was left with virtually no hand function. Not long after, a black Labrador assistance dog by the name of Cozie entered SJ’s life.

Glued to SJ’s side, Cozie is able to help with day-to-day tasks such as collecting laundry from the washing machine, opening and closing doors and removing raincoats.Perhaps more importantly, Cozie has proved himself an able companion who has allowed SJ the confidence to return to the national parks and ski slopes which were once an important part of her life.

“The less I have to ask my carer or neighbours for help, the more I feel independent, which means the more normal my life feels. Cozie’s been huge in that,” SJ says.

More than just a pet

SJ’s life is not the first to be given new purpose as a result of an assistance dog and it’s unlikely to be the last. Under Australian law, an assistance dog is a generic term for a guide, hearing, or service dog that is specifically trained to perform at least one task to mitigate the effects of an individual’s disability.

Dogs formally trained to be assistance dogs can take many forms. While guide dogs for the visually impaired are the most widely recognised, there are also hearing dogs, diabetes alert dogs, seizure alert dogs, mental health dogs and autism assistance dogs.

The ADA way

Assistance Dogs Australia (ADA) is a not-for-profit organisation that specialises in offering accredited assistance dogs for people living with post-traumatic stress disorder, physical disability, autism and educational support. Since launching 25 years ago ADA has trained and placed more than 550 dogs in homes where assistance is required.

CEO Richard Lord, colloquially referred to as the organisation’s top dog, says fully accredited assistant dogs reduce stress and isolation for individuals and families, while improving relationships and allowing people with disabilities to save much-needed money on care. “Additionally, clients with our dogs are more likely to venture out with their buddy, increasing their physical activity and often reducing reliance on medication.”

Subtle differences 

While it is common for assistance dogs, therapy dogs and emotional support dogs to be lumped together, there are important distinctions that need to be acknowledged.

Assistance dogs are covered under many legislative access laws for public access rights when working with their handler who lives with a disability, whilst therapeutic, emotional support or companion dogs are not required to undertake a Public Access Test (PAT).
Furthermore, PTSD assistance, physical disability, autism and educational support dogs are each trained for up to two years to perform tasks to help their owner.

Numerous benefits

The tangible talents they leave with encompass everything from pressing a button at traffic lights and paying the cashier at shops to retrieving dropped items and barking if their owner is in danger.

Capable of learning up to 50 different cues, typically assistance dogs retire around the age of 10-11, meaning most enjoy a working life of eight to nine years, Lord says.

Owing to the intensity of the training at ADA, it can cost up to $40,000 to get an assistance dog through training. This includes everything from purchasing a puppy, to food, vaccinations, training, and placement of the dog to its new owner. It is difficult to estimate just how many assistance dogs there are in Australia as there is no national register.

A fun experience

Lord is proud of the fact ADA makes training a fun experience for its dogs, whether participating in classes, learning new skills or visiting different environments. “Positive reinforcement techniques are used to motivate desired behaviours in its dogs.

With puppy educators, assistance dogs learn basic obedience and experience appropriate socialisation activities in the community.” Puppies are socialised so that they learn to be calm and confident in all situations, he says.

Lord says currently ADA receives “hundreds of enquires, far many more than we can accommodate”.

For this reason, occasionally ADA is forced to close applications to its programs until it is able to reduce its waiting list times. He urges anyone who is considering an assistance dog to go to an organisation accredited by Assistance Dogs International or their state government.
*Surname withheld.