Assistance Dog Gives Bay of Plenty Girl Freedom, Independence and ‘A Voice’

The Farrell family of Omokoroa, Bay of Plenty, has witnessed the life-altering changes an assistance dog can bring to a family or person affected by a disability since Labrador Lobo joined them in 2015.

The Farrells are sharing their story as Assistance Dogs NZ Trust (ADNZT) launches their Appeal Week this week, petitioning the public to help fund the organisation’s plans to double its dog training graduates within the next three years.

This will start to address the escalating need within the New Zealand disabled community for assistance dogs that offer independence and crucial daily aid.

ADNZT trains specialist public access dogs for clients with a wide range of disabilities, from autism to brain injuries to Down syndrome, meaning the pool of eligible applicants is substantial.

For the Farrells, whose daughter Georgie has autism spectrum disorder, global development delay and speech delay with hearing issues, Lobo ensured Georgie didn’t run away from her parents into dangerous situations like busy roads. 

The dog also helped her become more verbal through her interactions with him.

“Prior to Lobo, we weren’t able to go out as a family, and if we did we always had to hold Georgie’s hands or her wrists to keep her safe. Having to put a harness on her meant we were subject to many judgemental looks, as Georgie’s disability isn’t immediately obvious,” explains her mother, Liz Farrell.

“Lobo taught her patience and tolerance, kept her calm and improved her language from hand gestures and grunts to spoken words. Trips to the supermarket or the park were now possible and in fact enjoyable with Lobo as her anchor.”

Six years later, Georgie is able to take the school bus and cross the road by herself, giving her independence that would not be otherwise possible.

However, at the start of this year, Lobo passed away suddenly due to a ruptured spleen, leaving a large hole in the Farrell family.

“With the strides, Georgie had made, we weren’t immediately sure if we would get another dog after Lobo passed. However, she did struggle after the loss; we had been able to have our life as a family due to Lobo, and then when he was gone, I liken it to if you use a wheelchair and that broke. Lobo was a key mobility aid.

“So we spoke to the ADNZT team about a new dog but were clear that we didn’t want to affect another family’s opportunity or place on the waiting list.

“Each dog is matched and trained for a specific client’s unique needs, and so sometimes through the training process, the Trust finds that dogs are not able to be appropriately paired. Willow was tether resistant and not suitable for a smaller child, but was perfect for Georgie, so she joined our family in July.”

From the Farrells’ perspective, an assistance dog brings a measure of equity into the lives of children and adults alike, providing tangible, sustained benefits for the clients.

“It’s hard to quantify how much Lobo and Willow have helped Georgie with her development, and the choices and options they have both given her. Assistance dogs allow those with often invisible disabilities to search for and achieve acceptance, opening up a world of social interactions.”

With the charity’s current output at 8-10 trained dogs per year, plans are to increase output to 18-20 dogs trained annually by 2024.

Established in 2008, ADNZT now services 40 clients around New Zealand and has 16 puppies in training. With their waitlist now over 5 years long with over 60 people on the list, they know the only way to address this need is to increase their training capacity and therefore the number of dogs graduating each year.

Chair of Assistance Dogs NZ Trust, Sinead Horgan, explains that “The Trust doesn’t receive any government funding, and is funded solely by generous donations, sponsors such as The Lindsay Foundation, trusts and individual donors, including our puppy sponsorship programme.

“That’s why our annual Appeal Week is critical to further our plans to engage more dog trainers and ramp up our breeding programme, ultimately serving the unique needs of the disabled community.”

Assistance Dogs NZ Trust’s 2021 Appeal Week runs this week and next, and with the disruption caused by Covid-19 the charity has had to cancel their planned street collections around the country and focus on online donations.

“Street collections are crucial for charities, and the Covid-19 lockdowns severely jeopardise our fundraising income. Now we’re completely reliant on online donations to reach our target,” explains Horgan.

The hard cost of training and placing an assistance dog is $75,000 (which covers 1.5-2 years of training), which is Assistance Dogs NZ Trust’s fundraising goal for this appeal.

Each client is asked to fundraise $20,000 toward their dog, which they often achieve with creative fundraising efforts while also covering large medical bills and full or part-time care.

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