The Golden touch

The Golden touch

Mobility assistance dogs are trained to help those with a long term physical disability and are capable of learning a staggering 80 – 100 commands. These trusty companions can pick things up, act as a mobile brace to provide balance, open cupboards and doors, seek help for their human and generally make life easier. Before they get to this stage there’s a lot of hard work behind the scenes however.

Anyone who’s ever trained a puppy knows that not every dog is suited to this kind of work. In fact, very few are. So how do you know a pup has what it takes?

According to Kath Outerson of Ballagold Golden Retrievers, one of New Zealand’s foremost breeders of mobility assistance dogs, matching the dog to the job is both an art and a science. We sat down with the busy Southland trainer to talk through the swift career development of a mobility pup.

Golden Retrievers are widely regarded as the best breed for this kind of work. “They’re steady-natured, for a start,” Kath says, “and pretty bomb-proof if they’re brought up right. They’re calm and absolutely adore being with humans — especially when they’re pleasing people.”

The dogs were originally bred to retrieve game from the water and are very soft-mouthed as a result, a characteristic which allows them to carry items carefully without tearing or damaging them.

“My dogs can carry an egg without breaking it” Kath affirms. This innate capability and an easy temperament makes the breed perfect for assisting humans with mobility issues. Even so, there’s a lot of time spent in training and development.

The early days reveal a lot about each puppy.

“Once they start moving, I observe every single thing they get up to. You’ve got a pretty good idea then of who’s going to do what when the time comes for them to start in with proper training,” says Kath.

Until that time, Kath introduces them to the world. “I expose them to every possible stimulation I can: loud noises, different materials under their feet like grass, gravel, plastic, wood. I introduce them to water with a small paddling pool, to banging, flapping, flags flying, bottles clanking, tins clanking – as many absolutely ridiculous noises, sounds and sights as possible.”

At seven weeks old every puppy is put through a raft of temperament tests. Kath measures their retrieving ability, their inclination toward humans and a vast range of other skills that may make one dog better than another for mobility assistance. There are physical tests too, as is standard practice for breeders. However for Kath temperament is the most important indicator at this stage.

The next move is to a puppy raiser whose job is not to train the puppy but to socialise it.

“They might teach them to sit, stay and come, but they’re not trainers,” says Kath. “They’re simply a loving family who take the dog everywhere and expose it to lots of everyday scenarios.”

During this time an identifying jacket on the dog allows puppy raisers to take it into almost all public spaces: the swimming pool, a restaurant, shops, a children’s playground, even up the Skyline Gondola in Queenstown. The idea is to expose the pup to absolutely everything they might come across in future during their first year of their life.

At a year old the puppy begins specialist mobility training. This includes learning tasks such as fetching, sitting, ignoring distractions, opening doors and cupboards, carrying the phone, pushing the signal on pedestrian crossings and other key jobs.

By 18 months to two years old a puppy is ready to be placed. In New Zealand, Kath’s dogs tend to go to people in wheelchairs or to children with a physical disability. Many also go to Australia where they work with children experiencing anxiety disorders. Although her golden network now spreads far and wide Kath keeps in touch regularly with the families who have one of her dogs. She can pick one of her dogs by sight should she come across a photo or news item.

The good work of the Mobility Assistance Dogs Trust ensures that people with physical disabilities can access an easier and safer life. You only have to read heart-warming stories like Jake and Louis’s to see the enormous impact a canine companion can make.

There are plenty of ways to support the Trust’s work including volunteering, making a donation or becoming a puppy raiser yourself. See their website for details.