The story of our family's journey with Assistance Dogs New Zealand starts of course with us, the Jackson's. Amanda, Ross and our nine year old son Sam.
Sam was born with Down Syndrome but was also diagnosed with Autism shortly before he turned three. Aside from a raft of complex medical issues, it is the Autism that has perhaps been the most difficult aspect of life with Sam. His inability to cope with things outside his normal routine or new environments, the difficulty he has with social interactions and engaging in appropriate or meaningful play, the fact that he is non-verbal and has very limited ways to express himself or communicate with us. These are just some of the aspects of Sam's Autism that at times have made life not only incredibly difficult but also extremely lonely and isolating for all of us.
The beginning of this journey with Assistance Dogs started with the discovery that there was even such a thing as an 'Assistance Dog' and better yet, an organisation in New Zealand that was training them! In our case, what followed was nearly a two year process that started with one parent trying to convince the other parent (who wasn't keen on dogs) that this could possibly be a wonderful thing for our son (who was then seven) and maybe even life changing for our little family.
It took a lot of convincing, but I finally had agreement to arrange an initial assessment interview and in May of 2010, we met with Julie and recently graduated Assistance Dog 'Dylan' who was about to be placed with his new family in Auckland. Julie was instantly able to identify ways that an Assistance Dog could have a positive impact on life for Sam, but it was perhaps 'Dylan' who played the most crucial role during that assessment. He was of course the perfect example of an obedient, gentle and friendly dog and probably the one thing that convinced Ross that perhaps this was something we should seriously consider.
I would be lying if I said I'd had absolutely no reservations about this from the beginning. There were times throughout the last year and a half when I seriously wondered how I was going to cope having to look after a dog as well as Sam, particularly when he has been unwell. All I kept thinking was that if we don't do this, then life will probably continue just as it is and I really didn't think I could bare that. Fortunately, once we had made the decision to proceed with our application, rather than focus on those concerns, excitement took over and we just couldn't wait for a dog to be trained for Sam.
During our assessment, Julie had explained that she didn't think any of the dogs she had on their programme at the time would be a suitable match for Sam and that there were several families all currently on the waiting list. She would likely have to find a puppy for him and whether a dog will prove to be suitable for the specific tasks it will need to perform or the environment where it will be placed, is often not known until the end of their training. Essentially, we were facing a reasonable wait. As it turned out, this was probably the hardest part of the whole process, especially once we had started fundraising and people who had donated kept asking us..."when do you get your dog?"
Despite the fundraising being a daunting task, we set aside our pride and threw ourselves into it, sending out literally hundreds of emails, writing story's for our local newsletters, papers and drumming up as much support as we could. We were completely overwhelmed by the phenomenal response we had to our online fundraising page and the support, encouragement and generosity from family, friends and strangers alike.
Assistance Dog "Dylan" and Jesse
Dear Assistance Dogs New Zealand,
We would like to thank you for Dylan, the beautiful new addition to our family. A year down the track we’re happy to report that he has seamlessly fitted into our little family unit –always eager to please and extremely obedient. Most importantly he’s Jesse’s best friend and we watch with delight as the bond between them continually grows.
Dylan seems to understand that Jesse is his charge and he appears to relish his work. When out together on harness Dylan is happy, confident and purposeful, and this rubs off on everyone. Thanks to Dylan, our walks in public are now happy and relaxed, without the constant fear that Jesse might suddenly run into the traffic.
Whenever Jesse’s upset or self harms, Dylan’s ever ready with a reassuring nudge to distract him. Wherever we go, Dylan’s there, a constant non-judgmental companion – whether it’s chasing a stick in the park, or having a cuddle in the backseat of the car – no amount of strange noises or odd behaviour worry him. He has also been a bridge to our community and a wonderful conversation icebreaker when out in public.
There have been some other surprising and unexpected benefits too - When Dylan first arrived, there was a noticeable increase in Jesse’s verbalising. While Jesse generally remains non-verbal, it has given us renewed hope that one-day he may yet talk.
Thank you Assistance Dogs for fulfilling your promise and exceeding our expectations. We would have no hesitation in recommending Assistance Dogs New Zealand to other families with children like Jesse. Dylan has added another dimension to our family, and life is generally just that little bit happier and easier since he arrived.
Grant and Belinda