Kate Woollett trains assistance dogs in Central Queensland. Assistance dogs help their owners with those everyday jobs which are made more complicated by a disability or illness. Kate finds her own assistance dog, a black Labrador called Banjo, an invaluable part of her life.

“From day one you never growl at the dog,” Kate explained. “At home, if the dog grabs your shoe you’ll growl at it, but I don’t. I just turn around and say ‘thank you very much’ to the dog, and the dog will then give it to me.”

Kate said encouraging the dog to hand over an item its holding is an early step in training an assistance dog.

“Later on I will start naming items. Clothing and linen are generally called ‘sock’ simply because they are all cloth, so they’re all named the same thing. A knife, fork and spoon are all ‘fork’. You don’t give everything its own name because that would just confuse the dog, you make them into groups.

Ms Woolett said as assistance dog’s puppyhood is much like any other dogs.

“It’s trained like any normal dog up until 12 months of age. Then we consistently task train, so we’ll introduce each item slowly. There’s a lot of repetitive training just like you would do with children.

“Each dog is individually trained to meet the needs of a person. They have to meet a standard public access test, in reference to doing the right thing in public, but from there all their training is done individually. My dog is taught to pick up things, he’s taught to open doors and get the phone, and I just keep adding to his repetoire. Other people might have one that can hit the pedestrian crossing button, or they might be taught to pull a wheelchair along or take the washing off the line. There are hundreds of tasks they can be taught and each person picks what they want as the primary need for the dog.”

There are only five assistance dogs in Central Queensland, but up in Mareeba where the organisation’s head office is based, there are around 30 working dogs. Assistance dogs are generally Labradors or Labrador-Golden Retriever crosses, but there are other dogs around that are intelligent enough for the job.

“There is a young lad who has a Chihuahua trained specifically to work with him, because it’s a nice small dog that works with him in the school classroom,” Kate said. “But generally across the board they are Labradors or Labrador crosses.”

The large size of Labradors means that they can help their owners in other ways. “They will protect their owner if needs be. The other reason for having a big dog is that they have the strength to pull a wheelchair along if their owner gets tired.”

Banjo goes nearly everywhere with Kate but occasionally she will leave him at home. “The only place I don’t take him is karate two nights a week. Unfortunately he’s too protective of my kids when they are play fighting. I have to leave him at home because I’m a little bit wary that one of the kids will get caught in the middle – he’ll stop anyone getting too close.”

An assistance dog is usually consedered for retirement at about eight years old. “We generally start to assess them once they get to about eight, and from there there’s a yearly assessment, so once he shows signs of wear and tear then the order would be put in for a new dog.”

“It might take two years until you get a new dog, so you generally just take it slow. Your dog’s starting to slow down anywhere from about eight years onward. They might be 10 or 12 years old before you put them out of full work, but that’s when you have to start looking for a new dog.”