Like guide dogs for the blind, assistance dogs are always on the alert and help their owners navigate life. But assistance dogs are also trained to save lives. Poodles are chosen for the job because of their high intelligence. Training is expensive and specialised, and starts when the dog is around four months old. Margaret chose Bobby from the litter, and the high achiever graduated quickly and successfully. Margaret became Bobby's handler, and in this case she is also his owner.
Margaret has a combination of life-threatening disorders, but her disabilities are not obvious.
I'd say I've scraped the bottom of the barrel from the gene pool on both sides of the family, she says in listing her health issues. They include inherited syndromes, skeletal abnormalities, a collagen deformity and a calcium deficiency. Her breathing is also compromised and she has auto-immune disorders. An early defect is a convex chest which has displaced a rib. She is also extensively affected by inflammation, with angina the newest threat to her well being.
Bobby's tasks are many and varied.
He reminds me to take my medication on time, to wake up on time and to go to bed at a reasonable time. I am not supposed to get tired, so if I am talking on the phone for too long, Bobby will bark to get off, she laughs.
The Ballarat resident is also bipolar.
If I get manic, Bobby nudges me to sit down or nudges her to finish a task or he might bark to remind me to slow down when driving.
Bobby's coloured vest identifies him as an assistance dog, and to respect both dog and handler. There is also a sign on the dog which says not to pat. Margaret gives out pamphlets that explain the function of the assistance dog, his trainer, and other necessary information on the pair.
Reminding handlers to take medication is always on the canine's radar.
He has nudged me and nudged my bag to indicate I need the angina spray. He will stand in front me when he identifies a hazard, and he assists with my balance.
The pair, along with Margaret's husband, recently flew to the United States. Bobby needed official registration in order to accompany Margaret on the flight. The OK from Human Rights and Equal Opportunity enabled the poodle to board with his owner and take his place with Margaret.
Under law he can't be separated from me. He's a piece of equipment!
He loved America and nothing fazed him, Margaret continues.
When he thought it was hazardous on a walk in New York, he walked back and forth in front of me. To stop me from falling he put himself under me. At the railway station he recognised the yellow triangle signalling a wet or hazardous flooded floor. He dug his paws into the floor and ground to a halt!
But life isn't all hard work for the assistance dog with charisma. Commands from the handler are also to have fun. The dogs are trained to ignore friendly approaches, but not always. The command:
Bobby, go be social! is permission from Margaret for Bobby to accept attention and interact with other people.
For more information on applying for and training assistance dogs in Australia and New Zealand, visit http://www.anzad.org/.
To see Bobby the assistance dog in action, watch this clip of him completing his first Public Access Test (PAT):