They can do the laundry, collect the mail, even comfort a child with autism. Suzanne McFadden meets the canine helpers giving people their lives back.

In a world before Abby, Amanda Jackson could get her son Sam motivated to walk only by wiggling a ribbon on the end of a stick.

Now it is the wagging tail of Abby, a big-hearted black Labrador, that entrances the 10-year-old and he will follow it wherever she goes.

The Jackson family wouldn't hesitate to call Abby a wonder dog; one of a growing number of canines employed to help humans with disabilities or conditions that deprive them of their independence, giving them comfort, confidence, security and a sense of freedom.

Assistance dogs can be trained to pay for shopping, do laundry, help their companions undress. They can lend a haunch to lean on, a soft head to pat and even fetch help for those with life-threatening conditions.


We've long thought of working dogs as tackling criminals, sniffing out drugs or illegal apples, and physically guiding people. Now their caring natures are sought for palliative benefits. Therapy dogs spend time in hospices, easing patients' discomfort; psychiatric service dogs calm war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Dementia dogs are being trialled in Scotland to "guide the mind".

Dogs saved from death row in the United States are fostered by prison inmates. In New Zealand, puppies destined to become assistance dogs are trained in prisons - instilling patience and responsibility as part of the prisoners' rehabilitation.

Dogs with coats of many colours are now allowed access to public places such as stores, theatres, buses and trains. Abby, in the blue coat of Assistance Dogs
New Zealand, calms Sam during hospital visits.

Sam, who has autism and Down Syndrome, can now safely roam the aisles of the supermarket, harnessed to his dog. Where once he would have scarpered, he now waits contentedly next to Abby, who sits like a statue while his mum unpacks her trolley at the checkout.

Dogs like Abby also unwittingly act as a social bridge; kids and adults alike are drawn into the world of Sam, who does not speak. "She's a companion in the true sense of the word," Jackson says. "She has changed all of our lives."


Paula Jones won't forget the day her son Henry first spoke two magical words to his dog companion, Bessie.

Six-year-old Henry very rarely talks. With autism and developmental delays, his vocabulary barely extends beyond Mum, Dad and hi. But when Bessie, an affectionate golden retriever, came into the picture two years ago, Henry felt the need to mimic his family's praise of the dog, saying "good girl".

"It was amazing," says Jones. "It's almost like that's what he calls her - 'Good Girl'."

She's also astonished by how attentively Henry listens and responds to the commands his mother gives to the dog, whereas she battled to get his attention pre-Bessie.

When he wears a harness that's clipped to Bessie's blue coat when they're out walking the busy streets of Wellington, Henry follows the commands "to the kerb" and "wait". Before the dog, his parents could only take him out strapped into a pushchair, or holding tightly to a hand.

Intrigued by buses, he would try to dash out on to the road to meet them. Now Bessie won't budge when he tries to bolt.

The dog came as a godsend to Jones and her husband Chris, near the end of their tether wondering how they could leave the house with their strapping, strong boy.

"Trying to go anywhere was a nightmare. As he got bigger and heavier, I had no idea how we would ever get him out of a pushchair. I was scared about not being able to manage him," she says. "Now the harness system creates freedom for him. He can do his exploring at the end of the leash - he has confidence now."

Jones is still reluctant to take Henry and Bessie into the supermarket, and it has nothing to do with the dog. Henry is "very grabby"; groceries tend to fall like dominoes beneath his hands.

He is a child who loves touch and feel, meaning Bessie's rich, furry coat is comforting.
"I worried Henry might hurt her at first, but they play like puppies," Jones says. "He can now a throw a ball for her to fetch - the look on his face is pure joy."

The family had to raise $10,000 to get Bessie. It costs Assistance Dogs New Zealand $20,000 to raise and train their dogs and, with little funding or sponsorship, successful applicants are asked to contribute. Encouraged by friends, Jones ran a half-marathon to raise funds.

"When I started training I couldn't run 200 metres without being out of breath," she says "But even people I didn't know got behind me and donated."

Julie Hancox, who set up Assistance Dogs in 2008, trains the dogs on her 12ha farmland at Puketotara, near Te Awamutu. A former guide dog trainer, with a post-graduate diploma in rehabilitation, Hancox saw a need for service dogs for "a huge group of people who were missing out".

"The big difference is that we aren't specific to one disability. We've placed dogs with people with autism and physical disabilities; we're even training a diabetes alert dog. There are children out there who need assistance dogs," she says.

"With autism, a dog brings huge benefits to the family, not just the child. Mum gets support, and the focus is on the dog, not just her all the time. We ask parents what they want the dog to help them with. It might be balance, teaching the dog to stand rock-solid for the child to lean on; they need to be tolerant to some things, obedient in others."

Hancox has placed nine dogs in the community, and the waiting list has 10 names on it. She's hoping the two dogs donated by a service dog organisation in Queensland will give her a litter of suitable labrador-golden retriever cross puppies this year.

Although the Jones family, including two older children, liked animals, they wondered if they were overcommitting themselves by taking on a dog, as they struggled to come to terms with Henry's diagnosis.

"We decided to take a punt, and the benefits have far outweighed the responsibilities. She's worth her weight in gold," Jones says.

"Henry has a real connection with her, and the older kids love her to bits. But she's very much my dog. I can't go anywhere near Henry without her being at my heels - it's almost like she knows she's my big helper."


Casper, the friendly golden retriever, can sense when Erica Tiedemann is about to have a "biggie": a tonic-clonic, a grand mal seizure, epileptic convulsions of the major kind.

The dog at her side for the past 18 months will get "incredibly anxious", says Tiedemann, a neuropsychology student who's had severe epilepsy for almost four years. If she doesn't remember to take her evening cocktail of four medications, she's likely to have a tonic-clonic seizure 12 hours later.

Somehow Casper knows when Tiedemann has forgotten; he will whack his tail against her bed, nudge her, and lead her to the drugs on the kitchen bench.

While there's still scepticism in the medical world whether dogs can actually sense impending seizures, Tiedemann is certain that Casper is aware, believing he may detect a change in scent.

But it's his response to a seizure - comforting and helping Tiedemann when she's in trouble or disorientated - that is his main role.

"When I have little seizures, where I only get seconds' notice myself, I say 'aura' to him. He will stay beside me, doing his anxious lip-smacking. No one can be scared with those big eyes staring up at you," she says. On command, Casper will fetch the phone so she can call her parents, who live across the paddock in rural Massey.

Tiedemann calls Casper "a master of intelligent disobedience". He won't let her cross a road unless she speaks the full sentence he recognises as his command. She will sometimes have small seizures - which she is rarely aware of - at nearby shopping centres. With Casper attached to her wrist by a lead, he anchors Tiedemann from "wobbling" off the kerb into traffic. He's given her the confidence to leave the house and be sociable again.

Bringing Casper into her home wasn't simple; Tiedemann was concerned for her 16-year-old daughter Felicity, who has Asperger's.

"We had a big dog before, but she couldn't handle its mad wagging tail. Fortunately Casper has a more gentle, rhythmical wag," Tiedemann says.

Casper has made life easier for Felicity too. "When I had my first seizure [at Christmas 2008] she dragged me to my bed and rang my mum. It must have been so frightening for her, and for the first two years her anxiety skyrocketed," says Tiedemann.

"She would look at me sideways every five seconds to make sure I was okay. She stopped doing that once Casper arrived."

Tiedemann and her specialists have no idea why she has epilepsy. "The irony is I was always so interested in the brain," she says. She was a month away from starting a master's degree in neuropsychology at the University of Auckland when she had her first seizure.

"I wanted to be one, now I see one," she laughs. Today, she can't work, let alone read. But she's happy to undergo medical tests and procedures in the hope she may now help others that way.

Casper underwent a year's training with the Epilepsy Assist Dog Trust in Auckland before being placed with Tiedemann. New Zealand was the third country in the world, behind Britain and the United States, to offer assist dogs to people with epilepsy.

Andrea Hawkless started the trust a decade ago, not long after her adult son Richard died. He developed epilepsy soon after his birth in the United States. When he was 8, the family moved to Whangarei.

"A matron at a health camp told me I was overprotecting Richard, and the best thing we could do was let him have his independence. So we sent him to boarding school," Hawkless says.

Although he had severe, uncontrolled epilepsy, he went through school, worked, and gained a black belt in karate. As Richard had been given his independence, his mother could see that a dog may be able to do the same for others.

With the help of specialists like Auckland neurologist Dr Elizabeth Walker and dog trainer Leone Ward, the trust has placed 11 purple-coated dogs in homes around New Zealand.

"Only one of our dogs hasn't worked out. He's now the best dog the bomb squad have ever had," Hawkless says. "For every person who now has a dog, it has increased their happiness, their safety and their independence."

Tiedemann feels she has reclaimed some of her lost independence with Casper at her side. "If my seizures reduce and I can read again, I will study the brain again. I'll take Casper with me, on the train or the bus, into university," she says. "I just couldn't be alone outside my house without him."


Although she can't read her dog's mind, Amy Hogan is convinced the lively labrador-poodle cross sitting at her wheel doesn't see her as different.

"Even if I don't want to get out of bed in the morning, I still have to feed her, take her for a walk and meet her needs. She doesn't see me as someone who's disabled. She sees me as the reason the sun comes up. And I need to rise to that."

As far as Bonnie's concerned, Hogan is someone who proffers love and attention; someone to play fetch with - even if it's a dropped phone rather than a bone - and curl up next to.

"She's perfectly happy to sit with me at 3am and let things pass. When I had pneumonia, she was happy to spend the day curled up on the bed with me, slowly buried under a mountain of tissues," says 26-year-old Hogan, who has cerebral palsy.

Bonnie turns 7 in August but has the boundless energy of a puppy. When I arrive at the Hogan family home in Auckland's Milford, Bonnie strains at her leash and barks a friendly welcome. It's best I don't give her a pat and get her more excitable.

"She wants to work and play all day. Fortunately, she can tune herself down to match my energy," Hogan says.

Hogan's mother, Jody - general manager of Mobility Dogs - says Bonnie is perfect for Amy, who is active and busy working as a researcher and growing vegetables. But golden retrievers and labradors are now de rigueur assistance dogs as they're more laidback and predictable, for those who don't have Hogan's level of mobility and energy.

There are 50 people on the waiting list for mobility dogs in New Zealand. Their placement is "inextricably linked" to funding, Jody Hogan says, with each dog costing $45,000 over two years of training. The trust envisages putting 10 more dogs into the community this year.

The job of preparing dogs has been helped by the Puppies in Prisons programme. Eight puppies are cared for by prisoners at the Auckland Region Women's Corrections Facility in Manukau, with four puppies now at Spring Hill men's prison.

"It's about changing lives from the inside out," Jody Hogan says. "The puppies spend a year with them, before coming back to our kennels for advanced training. They get 24/7 care, and it's working so well, we're looking at getting the prisoners to do advanced training as well."

The training is complex; dogs working with people with cerebral palsy, spinal injuries, multiple sclerosis or muscular dystrophy have to learn around 60 commands. Some are taught to load washing machines and sort coloured clothes from whites; some can tow a manual wheelchair; others give shop assistants credit cards with their teeth.

"They're useful tasks; and it's not always that we can't do them, it's just that we need to conserve as much energy as we can for other things," Amy Hogan says. "It's not working against the dog's instincts - they see it all as a game.

"When Bonnie takes off my shoes and socks, she sees it as an extension of fetch. She would play fetch all day." The lean black dog opens and closes doors by tugging at scarves tied to door handles around the house.

Working as a researcher for the Cerebral Palsy Society, Hogan often drops papers on the floor; Bonnie picks them up without tearing them. "Even travelling in taxis, when I'm strapped in, she's able to go into all the nooks and crevasses to pick up things I drop."

On top of their learned commands, the dogs can develop intuitive reactions to a person's disability; Bonnie will put her head on Hogan's leg when it spasms.

While Hogan was studying for a double degree in psychology and history, Bonnie would sit in the lecture theatre, nudging her book when she sensed a lecture was about to end.

Bonnie is an icebreaker in public too. Where many people are reluctant to approach Hogan in her wheelchair, they're happy to speak to the dog beside her. "I'm the patron saint of dog stories - I swear I know about every poodle on the North Shore. But it makes people more comfortable talking about Uncle Fred's dog," she says.

But Bonnie isn't always a saint - she will still steal an eye fillet off the bench when no one's looking.

"Their regular dog instincts aren't mitigated," Hogan says. "They are still dogs, not robots."

Socialising and training an assistance or mobility dog can cost around $20,000 per dog. To donate or to sponsor a puppy, see and