Posted Fri 21 Oct 2022 at 08:49am
Learn the important role assistance dogs play in helping Australians overcome their mental and physical health struggles and how these four-legged heroes are trained.
For some, pets are more than just companions; they’re real-life angels guiding them through times of darkness and helping them to become the best version of themselves. These real-life angels are also known as assistance dogs.
We sat down with Chris, a man who has been able to manage his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and autoimmune disease thanks to his 11-month-old assistance dog, Ori. In this Q & A, we’ll uncover the ins and outs of assistance dog training, what regulations for training are involved and how Ori has transformed Chris’ life.
Q: Chris, can you tell us about the day you bought Ori home?
“It was pretty amazing. I live in South Australia and collected Ori from a breeder in Port Augusta, and it took me a whole day to get there. Originally, I was reluctant to get an assistance dog, but he instantly had an impact on me.”
Q: How did you first learn about assistance dogs?
“Earlier this year, I contacted an organisation called Heelers4Heroes in the USA, which has been an incredible support for us.
One of the first things I learned was that an assistance dog doesn’t have to be a Labrador or Golden Retriever. During my research, I discovered that Cattle Dogs are more suitable for people with PTSD because they’re not as emotionally sensitive as other dogs. For example, if I happen to yell, Ori is more likely to understand that this anger isn’t directed at him.”
Q: How can an assistance dog help with PTSD?
“I have various symptoms that I can’t get under control, and no amount of drugs, therapy or willpower would fix it. Ori is the only way I’ve been able to manage my symptoms. One time, I was crying over an event I was relieving and when Ori got my attention, I immediately stopped crying.
Thanks to Ori, I’ve been able to do things I couldn’t do for so long. I’ve gone to the shops, doctors, dentist, and barber – all these basic activities that most people would take for granted. I can’t do these things alone, but with him by my side, I can do all of it again.”
Q: What does Ori’s day look like when he’s training to become an assistance dog?
“Ori has a high energy drive, so each morning and afternoon, we play fetch or frisbee for about 30 minutes. At some point during the morning or evening, we also have a wrestle for 10 minutes. Those sessions help him to remain responsive and enthusiastic about his job and training. Since he’s still young, I do 10-15 minute windows of basic behavioural training a day. The rest of the time, I’m teaching him positive reinforcement and working on him being comfortable in different environments. I ensure he’s being set up to succeed in any space he goes.
We also attend SA Obedience Dog Club every Tuesday morning. They have three different levels, and at the end, you get a certificate that states that your dog has excellent behavioural standards to be in public. Ori is in level 3 now!”
Q: What registration processes or regulatory processes did you have to follow to train Ori yourself?
“When I first got into this, I went to the Dog and Cat Board to learn more about the Public Access Test (PAT), which assesses a dog’s suitability as an assistance dog in public spaces. I discovered that according to the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act, I could have an assistance dog without them having to pass the PAT. Instead, my dog just needs to meet the behavioural standards expected in public spaces. I was then advised that if I wasn’t going to undertake the PAT, I would need to keep training logs, which I’ve done since we began training.
It’s important to note that a person must meet specific criteria to train an assistance dog. It varies from each state, but you need a doctor’s certificate to verify the reason. In my case, my specialist provided me with a PTSD diagnosis and a formal letter. I carry around two letters when I’m out with Ori; my doctor’s note which states why I need an assistance dog, and a separate letter which certifies that Ori has been trained to meet the basic standards of behaviour in public spaces.”
Q: What are your favourite bonding activities to do together?
“For me, it’s playtime. I enjoy his company and love throwing the frisbee around with him. I’m pretty sure I’m having just as much fun as him!
Q: How have you found training, Ori?
“It’s been an incredible journey. Growing up, my mother was a huge dog lover who regularly partook in dog shows, so I had some previous training experience going into this.
I first began training Ori with basic commands. Nowadays, we focus on behaviour interruption tasks, and it’s really working! Ori was able to interrupt one of my nightmares recently. This experience has taught me that dogs have all of these innate behaviours and will produce them as long as they’re set up and trained correctly to do them.”
Q: What challenges have you faced with training Ori?
“The hardest thing was getting him to the point where he could manage tasks in public arenas with stimulating environments. Ori is in full public access at the moment and can do most of the tasks I require him to, like interrupting some of my PTSD behaviours when in public.”
Q: Do you feel there is enough emotional and financial support to help people train assistance dogs in Australia?
“I think we can do a lot better. There are a lot of people that could benefit from assistance dogs but don’t have access to them, as some of the avenues that currently exist are difficult to navigate. It would also be beneficial if the government provided some free resources for how to train an assistance dog.
I currently use the Disability Support Payment to cover Ori and myself. However, it has been difficult to buy Ori his food and cover his veterinary bills with just this payment. I’ve received some charity support, but there should be more financial support for those with assistance dogs in Australia. I’ve found that the current support schemes in place will fund a full-time helper but won’t recognise assistance dogs as a proven solution. However, I believe that carers can’t provide the independence and dignity that assistance dogs give to people like myself.”
Q: Does having a strong connection with your dog aid in training?
“Yes, absolutely! I think I’m a source of consistency for him; he trusts me just as much as I trust him. I had an eye-opening thought at one point where I realised that we’re in this relationship where both of us are something that neither of us could be on our own. He couldn’t be an assistance dog without having someone do what I’m doing.”
To learn more about the benefits of the human-animal bond, read our Q&A with Baxta’s resident Vet, Dr Simone Maher.