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Marvellous NZ Pups Helping People with Mental Health + Detecting Rare Diseases


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We all know about assistance and guide dogs and the wonderful work they do for the blind and those living with physical disability. But did you know that specially trained disability assist dogs can help people with mental health issues and can detect the symptoms of rare and life threatening diseases?

We spoke to the inspiring Merenia Donne, founder of Kotuku Foundation Assistance Animals Aotearoa (KFAAA) in Whanganui, about how her foundation helps trains New Zealand pups to help in this way. It’s pawsome work!

Disability assist dogs for mental health

Merenia tells us that KFAAA was the very first organisation in New Zealand to train dogs to help folks dealing with mental health challenges like anxiety, depression, autism spectrum disorder, dissociative disorders, head injuries, and PTSI/D.

And guess what? They’re still the only ones in the country doing it, and with a fantastic team of experts.

“These highly qualified health professionals specialise in mental health impairments,” says Merenia. “Which is an essential component of safe and appropriate service delivery.”

Specially trained disability assist dogs can help people deal with a whole host of mental health challenges. Not to be confused with ‘therapy’ or ‘emotional support’ dogs, they’re trained to perform specific tasks or work to assist their handlers with a range of mental health impairments. Incidentally, they also provide comfort, companionship, and a sense of security to their owners.

They’re not regular pets; they go through special training to respond to their owners’ emotions and needs.

KFAAA Founder MNZM Merenia and  her disability assist dog, Borzoi 'Anya'.
KFAAA Founder MNZM Merenia Donne and her disability assist dog, Borzoi – Anya.

All kinds of conditions can be assisted

These furry heroes can make a big difference for individuals who have conditions including:

  1. Agoraphobia (fear of crowded places).
  2. Anxiety, whether the general kind or the social variety.
  3. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  4. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
  5. Depression.
  6. Dissociative disorders (feeling disconnected from reality).
  7. Eating disorders (struggling with food and body image).
  8. Mood disorders, like bipolar disorders.
  9. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
  10. Panic attacks.
  11. PTSI/D (post-traumatic stress injury/disorder).
  12. Schizophrenia (dealing with hallucinations and delusions).
  13. Traumatic brain injury (brain injuries that affect thinking and behaviour).

Detecting rare and life-threatening medical conditions

In 2014, KFAAA did something ground-breaking in New Zealand.

They went beyond assistance dogs for mental health impairments and brought the concept of medical response dogs to the country. These special dogs were trained to assist people with Type 1 diabetes, and (you guessed it) KFAAA were the very first in New Zealand to do it.

Plus, they made history by placing one of these dogs with the youngest independent handler of a medical response dog anywhere in the world.

How cool is that?

Medical response dogs use their incredible sense of smell to detect the unique scents associated with diseases. They help save lives by detecting diseases early when treatment is most effective.

Now, even though KFAAA has the skills to train dogs for all kinds of conditions, they understand some of these conditions are pretty rare. Not everyone diagnosed with them might need or want a specially trained dog to assist them. So, they’ve mainly focused on training medical response dogs to help people with Type 1 diabetes and seizure disorders.

It’s all about tailoring their efforts to where they’re needed most!

Esther & 'Molly'
(c) Ray Cliffe Photography. All Rights Reserved.
"Youngest known independent handler of a diabetes response dog in the world - Esther and KFAAA 'Molly'".
The youngest known independent handler of a diabetes response dog in the world – Esther, with KFAAA Molly. (c) Ray Cliffe Photography. All rights reserved.

What can these dogs detect?

“Peer-reviewed published journal studies have shown trained dogs can detect the symptoms of a number of rare and life-threatening medical conditions,” Merenia tells us.

This includes:

  1. Addison’s Disease.
  2. Anaphylaxis (a severe allergic reaction).
  3. Cardiac dysfunctions.
  4. Cancer.
  5. Diabetes.
  6. Mastocytosis (tricky condition involving mast cells).
  7. Narcolepsy (sudden, unexpected naps).
  8. Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS, i.e. feeling dizzy when you stand up).
  9. Polycythaemia Vera (too many red blood cells).
  10. Seizure Disorders (coming from epilepsy, a brain injury, or other reasons).
  11. Supraventricular Tachycardia (SVT, i.e. a fast heart rhythm).

Award-winning pups

The amazing pups trained by KFAAA have gone on to do amazing things.

“Our exceptional dogs transform and save the lives of recipients,” says Merenia. “Their stories and achievements have been published in many stories online and three books.”

Check out:

No less than three KFAAA dogs have also been honoured and acknowledged by the Dogs NZ Canine Hero Awards. This includes:

  • German Shepherd Nikki, in whose memory the charity was founded after she saved her owner’s life in a horrific car accident.  “Nikki became only the third dog [all of them being German Shepherds] in the history of the awards to be posthumously conferred with the Canine Heroes Life Saving Award, in 2014,” says Merenia.
  • Siberian Husky Ada who received a Canine Heroes Merit award for her disability assist dog medical response work.
  • German Shepherd Rica who received the Canine Heroes Service Dog of the Year Award in 2018. Rica was able keep her owner from running into traffic, lead her to safe spaces, and act as a mental health assistance dog to calm her down during a trauma-induced crisis. 
  • In 2022, from 400 other candidates in the NZ Top Dog competition (top dog with a job category), Merenia’s pup Anya made the top 10.
'(C) Craig Bullock Furtography.  All Rights Reserved'.
'KFAAA Ulyanov Anya'
KFAAA dog Ulyanov Anya. (C) Craig Bullock Furtography. All rights reserved

How are disability assist dogs chosen?

So how do Merenia and KFAAA choose dogs to train? Merenia says they follow a smart and eco-friendly approach instead of traditional puppy breeding.

“International best practices say it’s better to utilise suitable dogs from the community versus breeding many litters from scratch,” she says. “This is because there are already many dogs in the community who need homes or a ‘career change’, and breeding more dogs just adds to the problem.”

KFAAA is focused on young adult dogs with a known history. This way, they can better understand their behaviour and health as compared to puppies, where only potential can be assessed. Plus, they don’t have to spend extra time and money raising puppies before training them.

Or are they donated?

Sometimes, KFAAA is lucky to get puppies donated by expert breeders who are part of the Dogs New Zealand accredited breeders scheme. This is great for a few reasons:

  • These puppies have a better chance of becoming a disability assist dog because they’ve been raised with care and attention.
  • If a puppy doesn’t qualify, the breeder helps find it a good home.
  • It doesn’t add to the problem of too many dogs needing homes because these breeders have waiting lists of people who want their puppies.
  • They also reduce the risk of genetic health issues because they get dogs from different reputable sources, and KFAAA makes sure they’re healthy for their job.
  • They can also get a sense of which breeds are best suited for different needs, although individual dogs within a breed can vary a lot.

So, in a nutshell, they’re all about being sustainable, efficient, and making sure their dogs are happy and healthy.

2) Merenia with donated German Shepherd puppies.  
'(C) Bernadette Peters.  All Rights Reserved'.
Caption as 'Merenia, KFAAA Xena and KFAAA Mia'

Merenia with donated German Shepherd puppies – Xena and KFAAA Mia. (C) Bernadette Peters.  All rights reserved.

What goes into training these special pups?

Training a disability assist dog is a long and challenging process, but it’s worth it for the amazing benefits that these dogs can provide to their handlers.

#1 The first step is to assess the handler’s needs and abilities. This includes understanding their physical and mental health conditions, living situation, and lifestyle. The trainer also needs to make sure the handler is willing and able to commit to the time and effort required to train and care for a disability assist dog.

#2 Once the handler has been approved, the next step is to select a dog. The dog must be a good fit for the handler’s needs and lifestyle, and it must have the right temperament and personality for disability assist work.

#3 The disability assist dog then goes through a rigorous training program. This program includes basic obedience training, as well as training for specific tasks the pup will be expected to perform. The dog also needs to be socialised to a variety of people, places, and things.

#4 If starting with a puppy, the training process typically takes two years. This depends on the nature of the tasks required and the aptitude of the dog; with a young adult, it can be much shorter. Throughout the process, the disability assist dog is evaluated regularly to make sure it’s making progress and it’s a good fit for the handler.

#5 Once the dog is fully trained, it will be issued a vest that identifies it as a disability assist dog. The dog can then accompany its handler in public places.

Training a disability assist dog is a lot of work, but it’s an incredibly rewarding experience. These dogs can make a real difference in the lives of their handlers because they provide companionship, support, and independence.

disability assist dog

Matching pup with person

So how are dogs matched with their handlers?

“In order to best meet the presenting variety of client needs and lifestyles, KFAAA offers a service model which is unique in the sector and country,” says Merenia.

“This includes working with both dogs owned by the client and charity-owned dogs and using a range of purebred dogs. These are often considered ‘atypical’ disability assist dog candidates, but are nevertheless equally or better suited to the work than the more ubiquitous Labradors and Golden Retrievers.”

This system offers the following advantages:

More choices for applicants

Applicants get more say in picking the dog that suits their needs and lifestyle best. No one knows what you need better than you!

Preserving special bonds

If an applicant already has a suitable dog, KFAAA won’t break up that special bond. Their existing dog can become their assistance dog, and they won’t force a new match.

Better fit

Finally, it means a higher chance of finding a disability assist dog that’s just right for the client. They look at things like the client’s personality, lifestyle, and even the breed of the dog to make sure it’s a perfect match.

“While almost half the numbers of dogs trained by KFAAA are privately owned, we also provide trained dogs on a case by case basis to those applicants without one and for whom acquiring and fully training one independently under charity auspices may prove too challenging,” says Merenia.

Anyone who wants to adopt a KFAAA disability assist dog will need to prove they can take care of them all by themselves. That means looking after their physical, emotional, and financial needs, as well as keeping up with their special training.

disability assist dog puts paw in human's hand

The challenges of running a disability assist dog program

Running a program like KFAAA comes with its fair share of challenges. One of the big hurdles they face is finding dogs that are just right for the job. Whether they’re looking for young adults or considering a breeding program, they need dogs that meet very high standards.

Not every dog makes the cut to be a disability assist dog, and if this is the case KFAAA makes sure they find them good homes or other jobs where they can thrive.

“Our recipients and charity personnel consistently report how they’re complimented on the conduct and condition of KFAAA disability assist dogs,” says Merenia.

“However, while positive feedback and compliments are always welcome [and a great indication of the calibre of our teams] they unfortunately don’t pay the quite significant bills and costs the charity has to meet in order to sustain its existing services, let alone continue to develop and grow them!”

Why not lend a hand?

To continue their amazing work, KFAAA could use financial support. So if you’d like to contribute, you can do it in person at any ANZ bank branch or online. Here are the details:

  • Account Name: Kotuku Foundation: Assistance Animals Aotearoa
  • Account Number: 06-0793-0335053-09

Your donation can help them greatly with continuing their valuable work with training disability assist dogs in New Zealand. So, think about turning kind words into actions 🤗🐾💙

Be sure to check out some of the other inspiring assistance dogs KFAAA have trained!

A teenage redhead boy dressed in a dark sweatshirt with a hood hugs his Labrador dog,

Insurance for your precious pup

Even without special training, our pups are a significant source of love and support in our lives. Just check out the physical benefits of owning a dog or cat and mental and emotional benefits of pet ownership. You may not realise you have an emotional support dog but they are in a way, simply due to their nature.

That’s why it’s so important to make sure they have a soft landing if they ever get into an accident or become ill. With PD Insurance you can secure cover for tests and treatment for accidents and illnesses as well as damage to other people’s property, dental issues and more.

Sign up for our dog insurance online and score one or more months of free insurance.

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