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Only girl in NZ with rare condition finds comfort in assistance dog

There are more than 50 families on a five-year waitlist to get assistance dogs, which help people with disabilities and their families.

Assistance Dogs New Zealand Trust provides specially trained dogs for Kiwis living with disabilities, about 75% of which are children.

One of those families – the Opie family – spoke to Breakfast about how their lives have changed since Rocco joined their family four years ago.

Ten-year-old Sienna has 15Q24 micro-deletion syndrome, a genetic deletion which is so rare she’s the only one in New Zealand with it.

Her mum, Kirstin, told Breakfast on Friday that Sienna gets seizures, has ADHD and has Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) – all things which make life tougher not just for her, but the whole morning family.

So that’s when Kirstin looked online for support.

“I was actually Googling in terms of overseas and things and they have a lot more service dogs compared to New Zealand,” she said.

But that’s when she came across Assistance Dogs New Zealand Trust.

It took five years until they were partnered with Rocco, but he was worth the wait.

“It’s been incredible, he has allowed us to be able to go out and about, to go to a café, for her (Sienna) to be able to actually have a life and not be overwhelmed by these different environments.

“He can respond to her seizures and things, if we’re in hospital he can provide a calming presence for her, and actually he’s someone that she’s actually always got with her.

“Also, safety – out and about he can provide her with tethering so safety for crossing the roads, and also the social side of things like the friendship connection, that amazing bond that they have is just incredible.”

Their special bond was displayed on Breakfast when Sienna moved away from her mum, down to the ground to cuddle up to Rocco.

A live television interview and busy studio would be an overwhelming experience for anyone, but Sienna was able to find comfort in her dog.

Kirstin added that since having Rocco, Sienna’s communication has improved as she can give commands to Rocco which she would never have done before.

“He’s her best friend, I mean, she will say to him ‘I love you, Rocco’ which is just amazing to hear now those phrases and things that we never thought she might be able to speak, so it’s just really amazing to hear .

“It’s an incredible thing to see the change and that you can have some sort of normality in your life and to be able to experience simple things that other people experience, and be able to go out and not have to worry as much, and that she’s always got him there that’s got her back which is really great.

“He’s quite an amazing dog.”

The trust’s puppy development and dog training manager Eve Chittenden told Breakfast they currently have 37 families with working assistance dogs in Aotearoa – but 50 more are on a five-year waitlist.

“So we’ve got a real need and our need currently outweighs our capacity,” she said.

Their service is lifechanging to those fortunate enough to get one, so that’s why the trust is fundraising this month.

“This month is a big one for us, it’s our annual appeal and we do it because we need to raise money for assistance dogs, and that money goes directly into training and placing dogs with families. We don’t get any government assistance so every dollar is important to us.

“Over today and tomorrow we’ve got collectors all around the country who have their buckets and are very friendly and are wanting a nice smile, definitely some dollars.”

The trust has a goal of raising $75,000, which is the total cost of training, placing and supporting one assistance dog.

Find out more or donate here.

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