"I feel so grateful to have the opportunity of having one of these amazing dogs."
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 ADNZT and recently graduated Assistance Dog ‘Dylan’ who was about to be placed with his new family in Auckland. Our Instructor 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, the team had explained that they didn’t think any of the dogs they 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. They 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. Despite the fundraising being a daunting task, we set aside our pride and threw ourselves into it, sending out literally hundreds of emails, writing stories for our local newsletters and 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.