Assistance animals are essential for allowing people living with disability, physical or neurological, to navigate the world independently. For many years Craig Heading relied on the generous help of friends.
“Friends and relatives had been doing shopping for me, for years. Then 18 months ago we got on a program with a nationally recognised assistance dog organisation and I started slowly to get my independence back. Waiting lists are long and it can be hard to get on a program,” Craig told Dubbo Photo News.
Today an assistance animal helps him navigate steps and uneven pathways and prevents him from falling, trained to pull against Craig’s weight to help keep him upright when needed.
What’s unusual is Craig’s assistance animal is a dingo named “Tingo”, trained since he was an eight-week-old at puppy school, and for the last 18 months under the supervision and scrutiny of Learners on Lead.
“Tingo recently passed the assistance dog accreditation test, PAT or Public Access Test,” Craig said.
“He is specially trained to assist me for several medical conditions, providing balance support, spatial awareness, directional guidance, medical alerts, and more. Dingoes have been tried in the past as guide dogs and assistance dogs but most attempts have failed,” he explained. “This is due to incorrect training methods previously applied to the breed.
“Dingoes need positive reinforcement with rewards-based training – and lots of it,” he said.
“Many people have assisted in the training – from children, other dog owners, volunteers, friends, local businesses, dog trainers and animal trainers. While Tingo is one of the first, if not the first, dingo to have passed the PAT test, he is not the first dingo assistance dog.
“It is believed that credit goes to ‘Donna’ who was an assistance dog for someone in the 1990s which is before PAT testing was available.”
Even though the L-Plates are off, training never ends.
Classes will continue at Learners On Lead, a pet training business near Dubbo run by Karen Johnston. “Karen is a fantastic dog trainer, she is Delta qualified and she understands and loves dogs so much – Dubbo is so lucky to have someone like that,” Craig said.
The time and energy put into training assistance dogs can never be underestimated and the general public must not distract guide dogs or assistance dogs when they are working.
If distracted, handlers are left without support, which can put them at risk of dangers such as falling over or missing medic alerts. It is also important not to distract the handler.
“At times people have called to me from behind, while navigating ramps or steps and this has caused me to nearly fall over. Even just turning to look often causes me to lose balance,” he said.
Under federal law, assistance dogs and guide dogs are guaranteed full access rights to all public places including shopping centres, cafes, restaurants, offices, medical facilities, transport and playgrounds. It is illegal to prevent access and large on-the-spot fines apply.