This week I’m chatting to Zara from The Pawtrait Pack. To make navigating life easier for herself, Zara took on the task of training Bane to be her assistance dog. This is a little bit about their story, life with an assistance dog and how Zara is giving back to a charity very close to her heart.
Tell us a little bit about you and your Pack?
My pack is just myself, my partner, his 15/16 Yr old cat Miischack and of course Bane. Bane is a 6yrs old Husky AmStaff cross. I had to get him DNA tested to find out what he was!
When he came into my life he was just a scruffy 10week old pup. Full of worms and stinking of his own urine. A suspected unwanted Christmas present; it was shortly after the holidays that he got chucked up on Donedeal after being abandoned.
He’s been a drama queen since day 1 and constantly giving us the sass glance. I had so many arguments over the years about what breed he was. Eventually, we got him DNA tested and it came back 50% Siberian Husky, 37.5% American Staffordshire bull terrier and 12.5% English Staffordshire bull terrier. Although, my partner and I more commonly refer to him as a Galumph. The word galumph or galumphing means to move in a clumsy, ponderous, or noisy manner. Anyone who’s met him can testify that this sums up our delightful, funny, caring & dramatic boy.
What exactly is dyspraxia and how does it affect you?
Dyspraxia is the term given to Developmental Coordination Disorder, a chronic neurological condition. It affects your major and minor motor skills. Be it writing, tying a shoelace or even just walking. All of these I have trouble with. In short, my brain takes the scenic route when trying to execute or absorb certain tasks and information. It used to be referred to as clumsy child syndrome, but unfortunately, you don’t just outgrow it or catch up.
It affects me in a lot of ways that I’m still discovering. Although I was diagnosed at 8 years old, no one told me until I was 18. Now with the help of an occupational therapist, I understand that I’m not weird or awkward, my brain is just wired differently. One thing dyspraxia causes are accidents. I’ve fallen, sprained limbs and nearly given my partner many heart attacks. It’s embarrassing for me to eat with people due to how I handle cutlery, basically, my motor skills come off as child-like.
It affects other aspects of my life. Sensory issues are a big thing with dyspraxia. Although each person is affected differently, I can experience sensory overload much quicker than others. In this way, it can be compared to aspects of autism spectrum disorder. It’s like you have a coffee mug and I’d have a small teacup. Each stimulus (eg lights sounds touch) would be a small splash of water. You might not even notice the small bit of water in your cup, but for me, it could be full to the brim, which is when a sensory overload occurs. I can end up having a panic attack, walking around with my fingers in my ears or simply running away.
It can also make it very hard to make friends. I’ve never really had many friends in life, but now I have the Pack! A group of truly amazing & understanding people. Who don’t see me as awkward or odd, they just see me.
When did you decide you would start training Bane to assist you?
I had considered training Bane as an assistance dog for a year or so before pursuing it. I developed PTSD from a variety of things in my life. That paired with the dyspraxia and other difficulties I experience meant that engaging in day to day life was extremely difficult. I had dropped out of college, became housebound and almost completely dependent on my partner.
I have loved comedian Drew Lynch (America’s Got Talent) for a while and came across his YouTube channel. He has a beautiful service dog called Stella, a vizsla. You know how it is, you fall down a rabbit hole of videos. But, I was seeing how psychiatric service dogs can help their owners in the tasks they provide. It was my glimmer of hope to become as independent as I could be again.
Why did you have to train Bane yourself?
I had to train Bane myself because there really was no alternative. No organizations here deal with my particular disabilities and therefore couldn’t help me. Most would start with a new dog or pup, Bane was already 4 so I wasn’t sure if it was too late to start the training.
Luckily I got in contact with Éamon from Best Dog. We discussed it and confirmed that Bane should be fine adapting to this new way of life we were discovering. Anyone who’s seen Bane’s work can confirm, he loves his job. So much so that quarantine is driving him nuts. Although he does work at home, it’s not as demanding as walking through Penneys and trying to pull me away from a sales rack (joking!).
What have you trained him to do that helps you in your everyday life?
Luckily he loves to learn so training has always been interesting & fun for both of us. However, those Husky genes shine through and he can be as stubborn as a mule!
He’s constantly learning and training really never stops. His tasks ( things to help mitigate my disabilities) include guide work, where he will follow a certain person if I ask him to. This is useful for when I’m in sensory overload and my brain just can’t keep up anymore so I can’t focus on staying with the person I’m with.
I can have horrific panic attacks where basically I don’t know where I am or who anyone is. Banes has been trained to alert me to this before all hell breaks loose. There’ll be subtle changes in my behavior or even my smell which he picks up on to alert me. He paws my hands or legs to tell me. Then he’ll usually perform what’s called Deep Pressure Therapy (DPT) where he’ll lie across my lap putting all his weight (30kg) on me. This helps ground me and keep me in the moment. It’s the same effect that someone who uses a weighted blanket would experience.
He can also find exits, find my partner or friends, get me my water, pick up my stuff if I drop it and do what’s called a “block” so when I’m looking at something on a shelf in a shop, he stands behind me. I wear a hands free leash so by the way he turns his head, moving the leash slightly I can tell if someone’s behind me so they don’t creep up and touch me, etc.
Was the training difficult? Did you find support here in Ireland to help?
Training is really difficult. There are good days and bad. I always have to remind myself how far he’s come. There are so many standards in behavior that an assistance dog has to adhere to. Like, no sniffing food or the floor when working. It takes a lot of work and will power on Banes’s behalf, I’m very proud of him.
I got some help from Best Dog training at the beginning. Otherwise, it’s mainly been online that I’ve found material, through YouTube, Facebook groups and Audiobooks. Plus I always have the offer from you to come along on training outings.
What exactly is the difference between a guide dog, an assistance dog, and an emotional support animal?
They all do exemplary work in their own ways. A guide dog and an assistance dog are basically the same. You may also hear them being referred to as Service Dogs, they are interchangeable terms. It’s their jobs that are different.
A guide dog’s main task is to guide their blind handlers, though Bane can do guide work it is far more basic to a guide dog. An assistance dog could be for a variety of reasons. There are epileptic seizure alert dogs, diabetic alert dogs, mobility dogs, psychiatric assistance dogs, etc. They can accompany their handlers anywhere and are trained to only work for their handler.
An emotional support animal (ESA)l can often be mixed up with a psychiatric assistance dog. However, where they differ is their training and access rights. An emotional support animal requires no training and can be any animal. They aren’t formally recognized here. In the US, for example, if you require an ESA you can own one in non-pet friendly accommodation and on some airlines they can fly in the cabin with you.
Another type of dog that can be mixed up with any of the others is a pet therapy dog, these are dogs that have been invited into a hospital, residential home or other facilities to bring joy and comfort to any person.
A fun fact is that in some parts of Canada and the US you could see other animals working as assistance animals! Cats and even miniature horses are legally recognized and trained as Service Animals.
I’ve heard if you see an assistance or guide dog without their owner you’re supposed to follow them in case the handler is in trouble, is this correct? Would Bane go find someone should you need help?
Some dogs can be trained to go find help for their handler. Bane’s trained to find my partner but not anyone else. It is something we’d like to train.
The best way to know is to check the dog’s vest. Many vests have pockets with emergency information on them or even written directly onto the vest. For example, a friend of mine has written on her dogs’ vest “If I’m alone ask me: Find Mammy and follow me!”.
If you find a dog providing medical response and their handler is down, look on their vest. Some will say ” I faint, it’s normal don’t call 999″ or even to not separate the handler from their Assistance Dog.
I’ve got some of your bandanas and collars that you make in your spare time. I know you give a percentage to Dog’s Aid.
Can you tell us a little bit more and why Dog’s Aid is an important charity for you?
Yes, I love Dogs Aid. Dogs Aid runs a subsidized clinic for the local community; when I was little if I found a dog or cat, I’d bring them to Maggie’s clinic. When I grew older I learned of the sanctuary itself.
Set up by Maggie in the ’80s in a Ballymun flat, they never had permanent premises meaning they had to move a bi. The kennels were built into shipping containers so that they could pick up and move if needed. Luckily a few years ago they got a 99-year lease on their land.
I haven’t been to Dogs Aid in about 2 years, I miss it horribly. No dog gets put down. They have a bunch of forever dogs, those too old or bold to be adopted. You might think this is cruel, that they must spend their whole life in a kennel, but nope. Most of the dogs are in an area called “The Barn”. A large room and yard where they can lounge in the sun, curl up at the fire or get snuggles from the volunteers and Maggie. At night each dog is put in their own kennel with their dinner and comfortable bed.
Dogs Aid was like a little piece of heaven to me for so many years, where I met so many friends and had some of the best times of my life. As I’m not able to volunteer at the moment, the best I can offer is 10% of my shop profits from Bane’s Bowtique to them because they get no government funding, no staff and even Maggie herself is a volunteer. I’d recommend anyone to volunteer there, it’s so worth it.