Over a year ago now, I wrote a post about how I’d like an assistance dog for Lil Z and I was amazed by the feedback I got. Assistance dogs are also a regular topic on the special needs forums – it is obviously a popular topic and I’m not the first one to think about the benefits a dog might bring…
Since then, I’ve been doing my research. A fully fledged certified and qualified assistance dog costs around $25,000 – so it’s not something you go into lightly. And it is one heck of a commitment, not that getting a dog in the first place isn’t a commitment in itself.
So, I tried to step back and decide if it I really wanted another family member that I would have to remember to feed, keep clean and deal with its poo, wee and other bodily fluids on a daily basis. Trust me, I’ve got enough bodily fluids flying around in my life that this was a major consideration. Not to mention that the dog would require a lot of attention. And I’ve got plenty of people around me who require a lot of attention. So, it took some thinking – and will probably take more thinking before we’re through. My greatest fear is that we would take on a dog which would be the straw that broke the camel’s back… with me most likely being the camel.
In between my contemplations, I did some research and talked to a lot of people, including breeders, people who run organisations that provide and train assistance dogs, and even a very helpful woman who uses an assistance dog herself. And I came to a few important conclusions:
1. Lil Z does not need a fully fledged official, all-singing all-dancing assistance dog. A lot of people seemed to push me down this route, but I don’t think it is right for us at the moment. Assistance dogs can provide an amazing amount of help to someone with a disability and can help them get out in the world and be independent, when otherwise they would be stuck at home or reliant on others for help. But Lil Z is not yet 3 and quite simply wouldn’t benefit from the independence that a dog could give her.
So, I am planning to take a different approach. We will get a dog and find a trainer to help us to train it for specific tasks. For example, I’d like the dog to alert us when Lil Z is having a seizure. I’d like the dog to interact with Lil Z to encourage her to engage more with the world, and to comfort her when she’s upset (this will be a learning process, since I don’t know what form those interactions would take at the moment). I would also like the dog to learn to interrupt some of her repetitive behaviours, such as scratching her ears and pulling her hair. And maybe provide an extra support as she learns to sit and stand independently.
Of course, this is kind of taking the hard route. Since I want to be sure of the dog’s background and temperament this means getting a puppy from a reputable breeder and training it from puppy training on through to special skills. It means a lot of time and commitment from us.
But another benefit will be that it won’t just be Lil Z’s assistance dog, but a friend for Vegemite as well. So the dog could be a source of emotional support and comfort for her – especially if Lil Z is in hospital.
2. We’d like to get her a goldendoodle (or groodle, if you prefer) – that’s a golden retriever poodle cross. Initially we were looking at standard poodles, because QB had one as a child and remembers it fondly and also because it is low-shedding, which would be a big benefit considering the medical equipment we have and the fact Lil Z loves to snow-plow across the floor on her face. We spoke to several people about poodles who were used for assistance dogs. In the end, the expert consensus was that poodles had the potential to be a bit excitable to work with children. And then someone recommended goldendoodles. They combine the low-shedding coat and intelligence of a poodle with the gentle nature and easy trainability of a golden retriever – or at least they do most of the time. Perfect.
So, I’ve been talking to a couple of goldendoodle breeders in Australia and found one outside Brisbane that has experience training assistance and guide dogs. Yesterday we visited her – she had several puppies from her latest litter that haven’t yet gone to their new homes so it was a great opportunity to see them in action.
I was also very interested – and a little nervous – about how Lil Z would respond. She has met our nanny’s big rescue dog and also a friend’s lovely golden retriever, but never a puppy, let alone 4 or 5 of them at once. And with her sensory issues, I was worried that she’d get overwhelmed. Or that it would turn out that she actually doesn’t like dogs all that much.
In fact, it went really, really well. Vegemite was in puppy heaven. And Lil Z was completely at ease with the puppies – even when four of them were licking her toes, fingers, face and hair at the same time (yes, she needed a bath when we got home!). She independently put her hand on the back of one of the puppies and seemed to enjoy the feel of their fur when they rubbed against her (they were incredibly soft). She was calm and happy throughout our visit. It was a lovely afternoon.
So, now we wait until there are more puppies available. And in the meantime I search for a trainer and continue my charm offensive with QB, who is playing the yin to my yang by being the practical one, pointing out all the downsides to owning a dog (especially a puppy) and making sure we really do want to commit to this.