Dog a life-changer for girl with autism

LIBBY WILSON
Last updated 05:00 01/04/2014
Jaime Thomas
Mark Taylor/Fairfax NZ

GIRL'S BEST FRIEND: Assistance dog Brandi has been a lifechanger for Jaime Thomas, right, who has autism. The dog has helped her connect with other dog-lovers such as Peish Ryder, left.

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Jaime Thomas is petrified of dogs, yet having one as an almost constant companion has changed her life.

Going out in public and certain situations can overwhelm the Hamilton 10-year-old, due to her autism.

Yet that's already started to change in the six weeks she has had chocolate labrador Brandi, trained through the Assistance Dogs New Zealand Trust to help people with disabilities.

In fact, talking about Brandi with fellow dog-lover Peish Ryder has already made Jaime a new friend.

"When you see her [Jaime] with any other dog and you see how scared she is and then you see her with her own dog, it's just amazing," mother Michelle MacDonald said.

They did not think an assistance dog would work for Jaime because of her "extreme fear" of the animals, but she was willing to give Brandi a go.

There was a trial period, but they knew straight away that Brandi was "perfect" for Jaime, MacDonald said.

"It was an instant bond."

Brandi's calm nature and well-trained ways probably won Jaime's trust, MacDonald said - Jaime knows the dog will obey her commands and would never jump up on her.

The rest of the family loves her too and she is more or less like a pet at home, MacDonald says.

"Once she puts her [assistance dog] coat on she knows she's working and she's amazing. There's quite a change in her."

She goes most places with Jaime - to the supermarket, beach, malls and to pick her up from school - and there have already been positive changes.

A major one is that Jaime can focus on Brandi when she goes out instead of worrying about the situation, which gives her more confidence to be more independent.

If Jaime does have "a meltdown", Brandi is a cue to people to be a little more patient. And Jaime used to come out of school stressed, MacDonald said, but now she knows Brandi will be waiting for her she comes out with a "big smile" and takes the lead.

But training an assistance dog is not cheap and the family is aiming to raise $20,000 towards it, MacDonald said.

"We're asking people for help for the first time. This is something that has really benefited Jaime and we need help now."

The Assistance Dogs New Zealand Trust was founded in 2008 by Julie Hancox and now has about 17 dogs helping people with a range of disabilities.

She trained Brandi herself, and the dog's frantically wagging tail is a clear sign she remembers.

Hancox takes a lot of satisfaction from her work through the charitable trust because - especially when dogs go to children - it can also help parents, siblings, and even the wider commun- ity.

"You're really bringing in something exciting and positive and that just sort of oozes out to the whole family."

Puppy raisers look after the future assistance dogs until they are around a year old, when they go into training tailored for the individual they will work with.

That can take anywhere from six months up, Hancox said.

To help Jaime and Brandi reach their fundraising target, visit fundraiseonline.co.nz/JaimeandBrandi.

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- Waikato Times

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