Medical detection canines giving confidence to people with autism

Daniel Steeneken (left) with Kip and Charlotte Sievwright with Frankie are two of the latest handlers to receive dogs and begin to build a relationship that will help them gain the confidence to do everyday activities.

DAVID UNWIN / Stuff

Daniel Steeneken (left) with Kip and Charlotte Sievwright with Frankie are two of the latest handlers to receive dogs and begin to build a relationship that will help them gain the confidence to do everyday activities.

Two helper dogs boost the confidence of their autistic handlers by helping them navigate the world through companionship and intuition.

K9 Search Medical Detection Dogs (K9SMD) are trained to assist people with disabilities to enable them to reach their full potential.

They can help people with diabetes, epilepsy or anxiety and are trained to detect impending medical events.

Charlotte Sievwright’s autism saw her struggle with social anxiety and she relied on her mum to be with her when she went out.

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But, the 19-year-old had dog Frankie full-time for eight weeks, and it gave her the confidence to go out on her own.

“She gives me the independence to leave my mother’s side,” Charlotte said. “It feels good.”

Frankie was alongside Charlotte as she embarked on her first independent trip to McDonald’s just a few weeks ago.

K9 foster carer Christine Hawkins provided Frankie with initial training and supported Charlotte during her transition to full-time dog handler.

Hawkins said watching Charlotte’s growth gave her a sense of pride.

“When I first met Charlotte she wasn’t speaking. Now she’s at a stage where you can ask her a question and she’ll happily answer it. I’m so proud of that.

“Charlotte even went out alone with her friends. Her mother said to me: “you have no idea how much this has changed our lives”.

Daniel Steeneken enjoys training alongside his Kip.  In the background, Charlotte receives a handshake from Frankie.

DAVID UNWIN / Stuff

Daniel Steeneken enjoys training alongside his Kip. In the background, Charlotte receives a handshake from Frankie.

Daniel Steeneken trains alongside his dog Kip.

“We are still in the transition phase, so throughout this period I have put fences around my house and prepared them for Kip.

They spend time together, at least once a week, learning basic training and getting to know each other.

This time will increase as they progress through training.

Steeneken found it difficult to venture out except for the occasional trip to the dairy or the supermarket with his mother.

He said having Kip would allow him to spread his wings.

“Kip is someone to be around, someone to focus on. I can go out alone instead of everywhere with mom.

He said he was happy knowing that his mother would have time for her.

“Plus, she already likes Kip too.”

Training a K9SMD dog takes up to two years, depending on each dog and the tasks required.

During basic training, host families like Hawkins will socialize them, teach them basic commands, and take them for walks around town to get them comfortable in busy environments.

This allows the foster family and staff to understand a dog’s personality and start looking for a suitable partner.

Pete Gifford with dog Jill, Charlotte Sievwright with Frankie, Daniel Steeneken with Kip and foster family Christine Hawkins with Tui.

DAVID UNWIN / Stuff

Pete Gifford with dog Jill, Charlotte Sievwright with Frankie, Daniel Steeneken with Kip and foster family Christine Hawkins with Tui.

The chief executive of the K9SMD charity, Pete Gifford, said they needed more people like Hawkins.

He wanted people to know that they didn’t have to be experts to become foster parents.

“Just the ability to do the basics, which are important, and to be able to let the dogs go when it’s time for them to go with their owners.

“What someone like Christine doesn’t realize is that we couldn’t have done this for Charlotte without her.”

Anyone with a diagnosed disability living in New Zealand can apply for a K9SMD service dog.

Information on how you could benefit or become a host family can be found at K9searchmd.co.nz.

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