When I put the blue Assistance Dogs jacket on Rufus, Natalie gets excited and asks if we’re “going on ‘ventures”. You might think that being tied to a dog would be frustrating for a child, but when Rufus was placed with us, Natalie quickly decided that he was her key to freedom and her partner in adventures; she has never resented the tether that connects them.
Natalie is 10 years old and has had epilepsy since the age of two. Her seizures are small but frequent, often several in a day, and they have delayed many aspects of her development, such as her speech, her fine motorskills, and her behaviour which has not matured over the years. She’s still very toddler-like in her impatience, frustrations, her impulsivity and her lack of awareness of danger or risk. She has a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, but we personally feel her autistic traits have been caused by the seizure damage rather than an inherited gene.
Rufus was trained to help us keep Natalie safe when we’re out together in public. Often she will run off if something catches her eye and she doesn’t notice dangers like traffic. She’s also a sensory seeker and compelled to touch, taste and sniff everything, so Rufus helps me to keep her distanced from enticing things on shop shelves. Natalie wears a belt and a strap that tethers her to Rufus’ back and if he feels tension, he will resist and hold her in place. If I need my hands free, I can put him into a ‘down’ position, where he is better able to anchor her and then I can unload my shopping trolley or pay a cashier without worrying about where she is running off to.
In the past 12 months we’ve visited places that we’d long given up going to, because of the safety risk when Natalie runs and won’t come back. Rufus and Natalie’s adventures have taken them to the zoo, where the baboons took a dislike to him and boomed out a warning..but Rufus didn’t even blink. They’ve been to the Auckland Museum, MOTAT, numerous morning teas and lunches in coffee shops, bushwalks, and even watched a community fireworks display. Rufus didn’t flinch there either. He is a stable, calm, confident and affectionate companion for Natalie and an extra pair of hands for my husband and I. He has opened up a new world for her and she knows it.
Things that used to be so hard, like watching her brothers play sport, are now simple with Rufus there to assist. No longer can she sprint across the footy pitch mid-game, or steal the boundary marker cones and run off with them. My anxiety levels have fallen and we all enjoy family outings now.
Rufus wasn’t trained to detect seizures because Natalie’s are small and she doesn’t fall unconscious, but on his own he has learned that she’s got something going on and needs TLC. Even though it’s Natalie’s brothers who throws the ball and play games with him when he’s off-duty, Natalie is the one he has connected with. If I ask him to go find hers he’ll race off down the hallway or across the yard to track her down. When we swim at the local creeks he swims too, off-duty with no jacket on, because the water is one place where Natalie doesn’t take off. She’s like a fish and would spend all day in the water if we let her.
Rufus knows that when the jacket comes off, he is no longer in work-mode, so he could just relax and be a regular family pet if he wanted to, but he swims right beside Natalie guarding her the whole time. One day at the creek Natalie was swimming in the thick of some kids who were jumping off the bank.
Rufus was whining and whimpering and trying to swim closer to her, but a bit uncertain about swimming where the boys were landing with a massive splash. I could tell he just wanted to get to her so badly. He made such a fuss until she came out of the ruckus where he could reach her again.
When Rufus is off-duty around the house, he’s a loveable goof and the best family pet. When he’s working, he’s so dedicated and sensible. I don’t know how we managed to do anything before he came along last year.
When the blue jacket goes on, you see him puff up with pride and a happily wagging tail because he loves his work. That’s when Natalie gets excited and runs to get her special belt and tether, and if she had a tail, I think she’d wag it too.