Its time for one chapter to close, and another to open.
If you have met me over the last 6 or 7 years you will have also met my sidekick, Assistance Dogs NZ Trust (ADNZ) Ben. ADNZ Ben has been with me through many ups and many downs over the years, but the reality is that he is now 10 years old, he’s done an amazing job for me over this time but he is retiring. He will be rehomed with a long time friend of mine who will give him a relaxed retirement, where he can just chill. She is also one of the few wheelchair users he will sleep behind so I know he trusts her. I have also been matched with a successor through ADNZ.
Before I really get into the “ADNZ Ben, you’ve been amazing and this is a tribute to your work” (prepare yourself for pictures of ADNZ Ben overload) I know I have an international audience and I would just like to give a quick run down on the law for Disability Assist Dogs (official legal term for “Service Dogs”) here in New Zealand.
To have full public access rights with a Disability Assist Dog, the dog must have gone through and been accredited by one of 7 organisations that have followed a process through Ministry of Primary Industries. ( http://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/1996/0013/latest/LMS175895.html#LMS175895 ) This is stated in the Dog Control Act 1996 and subsequent amendments. Businesses are within their rights to ask for any dog that is not accredited to be removed. After recently going through a Human Rights process around access, following the Dog Control Act is a reasonable accommodation, therefore any dog that is not associated with the 7 organisations is not protected by law. The common terminology here for Service Dogs is “Assistance Dog”.
I initially started looking into Disability Assist Dogs in 2003 when I began my rediscovery of outdoor adventuring. What I did not know at that time was that Disability Assist Dog organisations are severely underfunded and that the organisations at that time deemed me to be “too high functioning” to meet the criteria at that time. I had been looking into training our pet dog at that time, and I would seek permission to take him where I needed to go.
So fast forward a few years and some additional organisations had been accredited to provide Disability Assist Dogs, I got in touch with Assistance Dogs NZ and ADNZ Ben was placed with me on the 18th of March 2013. I was managing Vert-X Climbing Gym at the time and my bosses were supportive of having ADNZ Ben as part of the team. By May we were flying to Auckland for a conference, a bit like my life ADNZ Ben had a bit of “deep level entry” to working with me. My life has changed a bit since but its still hectic, just in different ways at the moment. By November we had gradually weight trained him to carry some of my climbing, tramping (hiking) and camping equipment.
If I were to list every little thing that ADNZ Ben has enabled me to do, well, you would be here all night. I am going to over some of the highlights (and a couple of not so good moments) so this won’t be such a long read but please remember that behind this there are many more stories. It also doesn’t show the vet visits, hours of training, exercising, grooming and picking up poo (which is one thing I don’t like him “picking up” because that’s just gross)! We have also been active in many Assistance Dogs NZ Trust Appeal Weeks, and spoken to groups about ADNZ. We’ve also met with a wide range of people in our travels. This has been a hard blog to write and selecting the pictures to share has been a challenge because I literally have over 1000 pictures of him and although I have included many of my favorite pictures; hit the comments, share and like etc if you want to see a full “ADNZ Ben” album uploaded! (If we get over 20 comments wanting an album I’ll put one up!)
One of the main reasons I wanted an Assistance Dog was for some of the outdoor shenanigans I get up to, because of my mobility impairment I cannot physically carry enough gear for multi-day trips, and at times even just day walks. ADNZ Ben has his own pack (saddle bags) and can carry around 4 or 5 kilograms (absolute maximum of 6kg). We did a lot of conditioning training for him to be able to do this task safely by slowly increasing the weight in his packs for walks. This is just enough weight off my back for me to be able to extend the trip lengths that I can manage.
One of the major highlights was my first “solo” trip in 12 years, this was only possible due to having Ben. One of my limitations is that I fall over, and often need assistance in getting up again. This has prevented me from doing solo trips due to the safety issue of doing a turtle impersonation and not being able to right myself. ADNZ Ben is trained to assist me to get myself upright again. I shrug my pack off, get his packs off him, he helps me up then we put our packs back on and head on our way. I also carry an InReach (satellite tracker with text message capability) so if things really go sideways I can hit the “SOS” button, more often than not though I use the InReach for weather updates and to let my emergency contact know of any changes in plans. We have done many adventures, both wet and dry since.
One of the things that may seem simple to many but can be a real pain in the ass trying to move things around the house while on crutches, a stick or wobbly walking. We solved this problem (except for food, drinks, medications, and other things that maybe dangerous for ADNZ Ben) by tying a short rope to our washing basket; this rope gives ADNZ Ben something to grab hold of and drag the basket around the house. The funniest part about teaching him this task was that he was used to picking up objects for retrieval (and hopefully get a treat). Well he is not entirely stupid and to start with he would shake the basket throwing out everything in it, then pick up each object and bring it to me wanting treats. He soon learnt that in this situation he would only get the treats if he bought things IN and with the basket.
In 2016 I went back to Universal College of Learning (UCoL) to finish my Certificate in Sports and Exercise Performance. Although ADNZ Ben is cleared for public access and is well used to crowds; the general population on campus had zero idea of how to interact with Assistance Dogs (it’s pretty simple: just don’t). Within the first day I had lost count of how many people tried to interact with ADNZ Ben, my classmates were pretty good once they had the “he’s here to do a job, not to be cute dog” talk but the rest of the student population were pretty much idiots. This was the year that we completed a 7km Trail “Run”, which I walked. It was this event that I realised that I needed to enjoy the journey more, instead of just the achievement or goal I was trying to reach. My classmates were doing the half marathon event, and when I was asked if I had noticed the amazing views I realised that I had been so focused on my foot placement I hadn’t really taken in the rest of the journey.
Over that year we had some truly jaw dropping experiences: Someone tried patting ADNZ Ben while I was on crutches climbing stairs. I got sworn at for saying “Sorry but I have class” and continuing on my way when someone asked “oh can I pat the pup?”. I helped write a “Dogs on Campus” policy to make it explicit that people (staff or student) can’t just rock up with their dog unless it is a Disability Assist Dog or one of the dogs being used for grooming by the Vet Nursing students.
What will forever stick in my mind was being called to a hui in the campus Whanau Room, a Maori kaupapa space to talk about my dog being allowed in there. I had walked in one day to the greeting of “What’s that thing doing in here?”. Which was quickly followed with “Does it bite?” and “Does it have fleas?”. This student then complained about ADNZ Ben being in the space; now I totally get some iwi and hapu don’t allow dogs in the whare on marae (this is a topic which I won’t get into here) but this was an education institution covered under the Dog Control Act not a marae. Had it been a marae I would have sought permission from kaumatua or come to an arrangement where both ADNZ Ben and I were safe, and I could participate. For instance when we visited Mata Atua in Whakatane back in 2019, I left ADNZ Ben just outside the whare with a water bowl and in the shade where I could check on him easily, I had MJ and the guides with me so they could provide me assistance. Mana whenua were amazing and worked through this with me to ensure I followed tikanga and ADNZ Ben was safe. The issue at the whanau room was resolved pretty easily at the hui, but I was a bit shocked that it even happened at all.
Although we flew pretty early on, it wasn’t so much of a regular occurrence until I got involved in Enabling Good Lives (EGL) and in the last couple of years we have taken over 30 flights. ADNZ Ben is fine flying (better than some human passengers), although he doesn’t like touch down quite so much. Once again the general public seem to forget that they have seen a dog before and often stare, point and I often feel like a bit of a zoo attraction. I also end up doing more than my fair share of “education” on these trips; I can’t seem to sit down for more than 5 minutes before someone is talking to me about the dog. Please people, remember there is a person attached to the dog, and in general we just want to get on with our day, I have had all sorts of inappropriate questions (“What’s wrong with you” seems to be a go to) and sometimes it gets a bit much.
On one occasion after a long day and troubles checking in because the travel agent hadn’t put ADNZ Ben on my ticket. I just wanted to get home and relax. I was trying to answer questions politely but with a “get out of my face” vibe, but I’m human and I snapped when she looked ADNZ Ben square in the eye and said “I just want to take you home” my response was “Do you want my crutches as well?”. This seemed to shock her and somehow “oh but that’s different”, I told her it wasn’t as he provides me just as much independence as my crutches did. Please don’t be like this person, our Disability Assist Dogs provide more than a cute companion and allow us to live fuller lives.
I often get asked the “jobs” ADNZ Ben does for me, which is fair; I’m pretty able and my limitations don’t stop from me doing much but ADNZ Ben has become instrumental to me participating in more. A lot of his tasks probably go unnoticed to the general public. One of his main tasks is picking up objects I drop, as this is the highest risk time for me “testing gravity” (falling), alongside this he helps me in and out of chairs and off the ground if I do deck it. He has opened the door to solo outdoor adventures again and he has the added bonus of being a great pressure therapy, hot water bottle. One of the things I didn’t expect him to do was pick up on some of my micro-cues of when I am in pain and trying to push through, he will nudge me to say “Hey, I think you may have done too much” and if I keep going too long he will physically get between me and whatever I am doing.
ADNZ Ben has been alongside me when I had one of my “how the hell did I end up here?” moments (there have been many) last year when I visited Parliament to meet with the Honorable Minister Sepuloni to discuss Enabling Good Lives. He is certainly a good way to break the ice and seems to be camera candy in this role! The staff and security were great with their interactions with us, I had been a little worried about the metal on his work gear but it was not an issue. So ADNZ Ben has literally helped me to get from out in the hills to the steps of Parliament.
ADNZ Ben, thank you for you amazing service over the years, I simply could not have done some of the things I have without you. You are my “main man” and I honestly can’t express how much having you around has improved my life. As much as it hurts you’re heading into retirement, I know you are going to a great home that you are going to get a whole lot of love and a chance just to chill and be a dog. Love you dude, enjoy your retirement and I will be seeing you soon, which is why we wanted to keep you close to home. Thank you to Rach and her whanau for offering him a wonderful place to retire to.
Thank you to Assistance Dogs NZ for partnering me with ADNZ Ben and providing on-going support throughout the ups and downs (don’t let your dog eat climbing chalk) of our journey together. Thank you for training him to start with and for your willingness to work on ensuring ADNZ Ben’s safety for some of the crazy adventures we get up to. Thank you for matching me with a successor and training her, I am looking forward to the adventures we will be having!
So “What’s next?” you may be asking. As you can see I have been matched with a new dog through Assistance Dogs NZ (ADNZ Raven). I will be meeting her and starting my training with her near the end of the month. Unfortunately Assistance Dogs NZ cannot just give us these well bred, highly trained dogs so I am now kicking off my fundraising to raise $20 000 NZD over the next 2 years. I will be looking at different avenues for this funding; however if you would like to contribute please feel free to make a donation to Assistance Dogs NZ Trust with the following details:
Bank: Bank of New Zealand (BNZ)
Branch: Lower Hutt, Wellington
Account Name: Assistance Dogs New Zealand
Account Number: 02 0528 0138534 00
Payment Reference: Dog 201365
GST Number: 101153568
I will also be getting a Give A Little page set up in the near future specifically for ADNZ Raven; however if you would like to you can donate now via Give A Little now at https://givealittle.co.nz/org/adnz. If you are donating this way please add “Dog 201365” in the comment section of the donation page so your donation is allocated correctly.
Once again a huge thank you to ADNZ Ben, Assistance Dogs NZ Trust, Rach who is giving ADNZ Ben a chilled retirement and all my supporters out there! My life is certainly an ANTNZVENTURE!