Man’s best friend helps in family rehabilitation

Massey News – 

We all know the saying – Dogs are a man’s best friend.

Now that friend is being put to work, with Assistance Dogs proving vital in rehabilitation and helping develop life skills.

Dr Gretchen Good is a senior lecturer in Rehabilitation in the School of Public Health at the Massey University College of Health.

She and her husband Dan Nash adopted baby Leo in 2008 and, three years later, added three-month old Tiffany to their family.

Both children have Down Syndrome, and other related heath complications. Leo, now seven, is vision-impaired, and does not speak, while he and four-year-old Tiffany share orthopedic problems.

Caz arrives

Earlier this year, the family welcomed a new addition, Caz, a three-year-old black Labrador, specifically trained for the family through Assistance Dogs New Zealand.

Dr Good was blind but regained her vision after a staggering 23 operations.

“While it has not been a barrier to me in developing a career, getting a PhD and moving to New Zealand from the USA, I do not want disabilities to be a barrier for my children. And that is where Caz helps.

“We thought long and hard about the pros and cons of adding a canine family member to our lives. We know at times it can be hard work, but we believe she will add to our quality of life,” she said.

And she already is, says Dr Good. “Caz is worth her weight in gold. She has made it easier to stop the children from running off, especially in dangerous places like car parks. She has improved their exercise levels and helped with Leo’s chronic stomach troubles. Walking more has improved both children’s sleep, which in turn improves our sleep.”

Other advantages

And there are other advantages to having a furry companion.

“Her main job is to keep the children safe but she also has the job to provide love, affection, acceptance and companionship to Leo and Tiffany. She can be a social magnet, attracting other children and promoting positive relationships. Leo and Tiff are different and sometimes other children and adults see those differences as negative or something to be afraid. Now they have a best friend in their dog and may get more friends because of Caz.”

But it is not all fun and games for Caz and the children.

“We work hard on sign language, speech therapy, reading, writing, social skills, dressing, eating, vision-related therapies for Leo, music therapy, dance and swimming lessons. We want our children to have every opportunity for an independent, happy, productive life. Caz can add even more enrichment to their lives, help keep them safe and help us be better parents.

Physical limitations

“Our children cannot develop independence in a natural progression because of their physical limitations like vision, hearing, speech, fatigue and low muscle tone. Caz can provide actual physical assistance and can motivate a tired child to keep going. She can even alert us if someone wakes in the night or falls,” Dr Good said.

She said that Caz is also helpful at medical appointments for the children.

“She can provide a distraction during medical procedures and motivation during speech therapy. And it has been proven reading to a dog provides great benefits. A child sitting next to a dog, petting their fur, while reading aloud literally lowers blood pressure and other stress factors.”

Assistant Dogs

Caz is an Assistance Dog, which is different from a Therapy or Companion Dog.

Assistance Dogs New Zealand, a charitable trust since 2008, has about 23 working dogs throughout the country, mostly helping children in families. They train eight to 10 dogs a year for all types of disability.

Founder Julie Hancox graduated with a postgraduate Diploma in Rehabilitation from Massey University in 2005.

“It has been an extremely rewarding journey, meeting families that are struggling in so many ways to help their children that have a disability to learn and grow now, so that they might find a secure place in society in the future. Seven years on we have children who have progressed from being tethered to their assistance dog for safety reasons, to handling their assistance dog independently whilst accompanied by a parent or guardian. That is a big development from a child that once couldn’t be trusted to not run impulsively out onto the road,” she said.

Pay it forward

According to her, the waiting list for an Assistance Dog is about two years with families asked to help raise money towards the cost.

“Each family raises money, which goes towards their own dog’s completion of training and the start of training for another dog for the next family in need. It really is very much a ‘pay it forward’ system.

So far the Good family has raised just over $8000 through ‘Give A Little.

Dr Good says the $20,000 target is a bit overwhelming but estimates that the service for each team over their lifespan will cost around $50,000.

“We are not fundraisers. We are parents. Anything people can do to help is so gratefully appreciated,” she said.

About the Programme: The Rehabilitation Studies Programme at Massey University offers students an opportunity to achieve a Major or Minor in Rehabilitation with a Bachelor of Health Science and a Minor in the Bachelor of Arts.

Massey also offers a Postgraduate Diploma in Rehabilitation and has graduates with Master Degrees and PhDs in their own area of interest related to Rehabilitation.

The programmes focus on the social and functional aspects of rehabilitation, as opposed to medical aspects.

Students can learn how rehabilitation systems work in New Zealand and what the impact of acquiring an impairment can be on individuals, families, communities and workplaces. They also learn how rehabilitation is practiced mastering various tools for rehabilitation, including Assistance Dogs. 

About Dr Gretchen Good: She moved to New Zealand in 1992 from her home in the United States of America for a role at the Blind Foundation. She joined Massey in 1994. In 2006, she married fellow American Dan Nash. He then moved to New Zealand and they began their family through adoption. Her professional background is in rehabilitation for prisoners, former prisoners and their families; in vocational rehabilitation for people with impairments or disabilities; in adaptive daily living skills for those who are blind, or who have impaired vision or are deaf-blind.

Photo Caption: Dr Gretchen Good with Dan Nash, Leo, Tiffany and Caz

Picture courtesy: Massey News

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