An image of a dog paw and human hand connecting. This may be an autism support dog or ptsd support dog

Inspiring Assistance Dogs You’ll Want to Know


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This week is International Assistance Dog Week – a time to celebrate some of the amazing pups that make people’s lives better in very important ways. We connected with the Kotuku Foundation Assistance Animals Aotearoa (KFAAA) and found out about two very special Kiwi pups, assistance dog Delta and autism support dog Leaf.

Delta helps her handler, a war veteran, deal with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), while Leaf helps her young handler navigate autism. KFAAA founder Merenia Donne tells us more.

Woman holds dog's paw on bed. This may be an autism support dog

Meet Delta

Delta is a disability assistance dog with a very special skill – she’s trained to make life easier for people with PTSD. This is a mental health condition that can be caused by experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. Many war veterans suffer from PTSD and struggle with awful symptoms like nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, and difficulty sleeping.

Dion Taka is one such war veteran. He was shot by an insurgent sniper and suffered severe injuries in Afghanistan in 2012, including a spinal cord injury, a broken leg, and a head injury. He also developed PTSD and type-2 complex regional pain syndrome.

Dion needed help.

Notebook written with PTSD stands for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

A very special assistance dog

That’s when Delta came into the picture. In conjunction with the Royal New Zealand Returned and Services Association Inc, KFAAA started the ‘Canine Comrades ©’ programme for veterans in 2015.

Delta was their very first trained pup to be linked with a veteran.

Trained by Janice Kirk, Delta the White Shepherd is able to help Dion with his PTSD symptoms. She provides companionship and comfort, lessens his anxiety and stress, and reminds him to take medication or perform other coping skills. Delta can also help to ground Dion during flashbacks or panic attacks through physical contact or performing a specific task. You can read more about their inspiring story – here.

“Veterans are an extremely diverse group,” Merenia tells us. “Like other handlers of disability assist dogs, no two veterans [even with identical diagnoses] are necessarily going to have the same needs. This was the case for Dion, who demanded an exceptionally skilled and talented dog – together with equally skilled, experienced and knowledgeable charity personnel.”

This copyrighted image shows Delta, a PTSD service dog
A 2018 UK Dog Photographer of the Year award-winning image of Dion and his disability assist dog KFAAA ‘Delta’ – Dion & Delta: (c) Craig Bullock Furtography. All Rights Reserved.

Assistance dogs are costly and sought after

But assistance dogs like Delta don’t come cheap. Some may cost between $20,000 to $30,000.

“All disability assist dogs are costly to source, raise, train and place,” Says Merenia. “This is largely due to their intrinsic value if they’re purebred dogs, the duration and resource-intensive nature of their training, the need for regular routine and specialised veterinary care, and their premium diet.”

KFAAA’s goal is make disability assistance dogs more accessible to all those who need and can benefit from one.  Through public donations, they subsidise the cost of assistance dogs so more people in need are able to afford them. 

Dogs in demand

The need for these pups is big.

Merenia says the number of serving and transitioned Kiwi Defence Force veterans who could benefit from a KFAAA ‘Canine Comrades©’ dog is significant. “Extrapolation from Australian Defence Force studies tell us there are about 66,849 such individuals,” she explains.

While Australia, Canada, the UK and the USA have legislation and government resources available to support those veterans in need of a disability assist dog, Merenia says the New Zealand government has yet to acknowledge the proven benefits or directly offer comparable support.

PS: Check out these 4 Best Breeds for Assistance and Guide Dogs

Autism concept, flat lay top view

Meet Leaf

The KFAAA run another very important initiative. Their Pawtism© project trains dogs that can help children living with autism, as well as their families.

“Disability assist dog are frequently beyond the reach of families – either for financial reasons, the long waiting list or other reasons. And when it comes to helping with autism, they aren’t necessarily the best or most appropriate fit,” says Merenia.

“What sets this programme apart and makes it unique in NZ is that KFAAA Pawtism© dogs are selected and trained to directly benefit the entire family. Not just the individual with autism.”

Where possible, the assistance dogs trained for the programme are sourced from breed rescue charities such as Greyhounds As Pets (which adopts out retired greyhounds). This makes it a ‘win-win’ initiative – a hallmark of KFAAA schemes.

Autism support dog, Leaf
KFAAA Pawtism Project Puppy ‘Leaf’ (c) KFAAA. All Rights Reserved.

Leaf is crucial for her handler and his family

Leaf the Labradoodle is the first dog to qualify as a KFAA Pawtism dog, in 2021. This autism support dog received extensive training and stringent assessment. 

“Acquired by her family in 2020, KFAAA worked with them for over twelve months. This culminated in Leaf attaining passes in all five stages of her training,” says Merenia.

As an assistance dog and autism support dog, Leaf is able to help the family in a number of ways. She provides companionship and comfort, which helps to reduce anxiety and stress. She also helps with tasks such as social interaction and communication. Leaf can also ground her young handler during meltdowns or shutdowns.

“She’s surpassed all expectations and is benefiting not only her handler on the autism spectrum, but the entire family, who keep in touch with us and meet with us on their visits to NZ!” Says Merenia.

To keep connecting those in need with assistance dogs like Delta and autism support dogs like Leaf, KFAAA relies on public donations. If you’d like to support them, donations can be made to any branch of the ANZ bank in person or online to account number 06-0793-0335053-09.

You can learn more about this wonderful organisation and Dogs New Zealand member here:

Interested in reading more about how pets can benefit our health? Read more here:

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