Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

Advocating for Disability Assistance Dogs

Wix and I arrived in New Zealand in 2003. Wix was a fully trained as a public access service dog. There were not many dogs like her in NZ when we arrived. And over the years we did a lot of education about and advocacy in favour of disability assistance dogs. Wix and I spoke to individuals from the public, business owners, as well as local & central government.

Talking to Individuals

I spoke to a lot of individuals when I was out and about in the community. People didn’t know about service dogs – they thought Wix was a guide dog, and they were curious to know why a wheelchair user would need a guide dog. So I explained to them that Wix wasn’t a guide dog. That she was trained to help with tasks of daily living like pulling my wheelchair, picking items off the floor, bracing me, and other things.

Talking to Business Owners

We also spoke to many business owners who were unsure if Wix as allowed on their premises. The answer is yes: full public access dogs, certified to Assistance Dogs International standards are allowed in restaurants, supermarkets, shopping malls, hotels, motels, and other public places. In most cases, the owners were happy and satisfied, and thought it was actually pretty cool that dogs could help wheelchair users like that. In some cases, we were still refused entry to the premises. In one case, we were actually thrown out of the motel, in the middle of the night, after having been in the room for two days already. Win some, lose some.

Talking to Local Government

When I arrived in Palmerston North, one of the first thing I did was to register Wix with City Council. Only they didn’t know quite what to do with her. They did not have a category to register service dogs, they only had a "guide dog" category. It wasn’t appropriate to classify her as a guide dog, since that wasn’t what she was. The local dog control bylaw didn’t mention service dogs, only guide dogs.

I spoke to several City Councillors individually. I then presented a submission in front of City Council. As a result, the bylaw was changed to talk about "service dogs including guide dogs, hearing dogs, mobility assistance dogs or other types of working dogs assisting people with disabilities". To my knowledge Palmerston North was the first city in New Zealand to specifically include all types of service dogs like that.

A City Councillor told me that they spoke to other City Councils from around New Zealand at local government conferences, and they, too, were looking at including all types of service dogs.

The current Palmerston North Dog Control Bylaw is aligned with the current New Zealand Dog Act and uses the term "Disability Assistance Dog".

Talking to Central Government

Changing local government bylaws wasn’t sufficient. The NZ Dog Act at the time only included Guide dogs, Hearing dogs, and Companion dogs (and only those specifically trained through one named organisation). Over the years I spoke to several elected members of government, such as Rod Donald (Green), Steve Maharey (Labour), Simon Power (National), Judith Tizard (Labour), Tariana Turia (Labour), and Paula Bennett (National).

Today, the NZ Dog Act is much more inclusive and talks about Disability Assistance Dogs. I like to think I had a part to play in that.

Puppies in Prison Programmes

One programme I was aware of before coming to New Zealand was "puppies in prison" – whereby dogs were placed with prisoners to get basic (and sometimes advanced) obedience training. The prisoners were serving medium to long term sentences and specially selected. This is a very successful type of programme which has shown a return-to-crime rate of nearly 0% after prisoners are released, and which allows more dogs to get training.

I spoke about these kind of programmes to the NZ Members of Parliament I met with to discuss Disability Assistance Dogs. I also spoke to representatives of Prisoners Aid & Rehabilitation Services and members of the NZ Corrections Department.

There is now a Puppies in Prison programme where prisoners specifically train mobility assistance dogs. Everybody win.

I’ve Done My Bit – And Will Continue To Do So

Yeah, I think I’ve done my bit to help the situation of all Disability Assistance Dogs in New Zealand, their humans, and people involved with disability dogs. I don’t mean to brag – I was just thinking about the various things I’d done over the years, helped by Wix, and realised I did manage a fair bit.

The work never ends though. So I’ll continue to do advocacy and education.