Assistance Dogs

Reporter: Graeme Butler

To say these dogs are man's best friend is an understatement. Phoebe is an assistance dog and for Peter Darch she's his lifeline. "It's brilliant, it's that peace of mind that you can go out not only help yourself but you can help others"

Peter life changed dramatically when he was 16, mucking around with mates one summer at the old Mandurah bridge. "I jumped in and was too busy paying attention to someone else and swum under where my friend was about to jump I swam back so quick he had no chance it was just an accident and he landed on top of my head"

The accident left Peter a quadriplegic "the obvious is the physical stuff I can only really move this left arm a little bit my fingers don't work so I can't really pick up heavy objects the right arm is a bit dead it doesnt' really do too much" For years peter was reliant on other people for even the most basic tasks.

Three years ago Peter experienced another life changing event; he was given an assistance dog- Phoebe. "Before I had phoebe there was no chance of picking things up off tables even if something was on a table and I gave it a crack and I dropped it stayed on the floor until I had help - what was that like? It was frustrating it was definitely frustrating you come home and you can get all these things like electric doors for your house and all that sort of stuff but if you can get into an empty house and not turn the TV on it can be frustrating"

Phoebe is like a pair of hands; she can pick up objects and place them in Peter's lap. She does the things most people take for granted like opening the fridge door.Phoebe's skill doesn't end there; she'll even grab a drink out of the fridge for Peter. Assistance dogs like Phoebe aren't only a great help at home they allow their owners to venture out into the community with confidence. Phoebe can help Peter in shops, like this pharmacy, she can present a prescription, get Peter's wallet to pay for the goods and collect them the tablets and place them in Peter's lap.

"I don't have to rely on others I can just take off to the shops phoebe will jump up grab the salad pay for it all the rest carry it home it's all done for me by phoebe I don't have that I guess the drama of trying to work out everyday and plan everyday when there's someone around to help me out I can do things at the spur of the moment and be independent really that's the key of it all"

To get a dog to this stage takes years of training, a process that begins as a puppy. This is the class of 2012."We start from eight weeks of age and our training is going through the basics as you would a pet dog socialisation as well as exposing them to public access areas different types of items in their mouth they need to be able to pick up metal, plastic, wood anything like that." Cassandra Kemp from Assistance Dogs Australia says its' an expensive exercise getting dogs ready to partner someone with a disability.

"What we require is $26,000 per dog and we have no government funding and we rely a lot on our sponsorship they could be from an individual person especially our corporate sponsors" and then there's the volunteers, puppy raiser families take on the dogs for initial training until they're about a year old.

Bruce says "it's spending time daily with the dog learning about him and his habits so I can either adapt them or use them and taking to places that dogs normally don't go so he gets used to places dogs normally don't go"Tilly says "got to be walked got have to have free runs he's got like the extra training that's put into it put it's fun, keeps the old grey matter going as well, thinking about okay how can I get this dog to do this"After initial training in Perth the assistance dogs move to Sydney for 6 months of intense and specific training, it's a bitter sweet times for the puppy raisers who have to say good bye to the dogs they've raised. It's still a long road ahead for these pups before they're off their L's but - when they graduate, they'll be ready to change someone's life.

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