Strong demand for Assistance Dogs as India enjoys her golden years

Special litter: (from left) Ivan, India, Izzy, Imran, Ivor and Ira were "earmarked" for big things at Heathcote-based Assistance Dogs Australia in 2005. Picture: John Veage
Special litter: (from left) Ivan, India, Izzy, Imran, Ivor and Ira were "earmarked" for big things at Heathcote-based Assistance Dogs Australia in 2005. Picture: John Veage

When Leader photographer John Veage turned up at the Assistance Dogs Australia office nearly 14 years ago to photograph the latest litter of new working dogs he could hardly have guessed how recognisable the image would become.

The photograph of the six eight-week-old Labrador cross Golden retriever pups would go on to become the image that many people instantly associate with Assistance Dogs Australia.

It's a dogs life and retirement beckoned for all the dogs some years ago and today, only one of the then pups - India - remains with us aged 14. 

Louise Walker, a trainer for the organisation at the time, remembers the day of the photo shoot fondly.

“As the pups posed in the back of the ute, they were being propped up from below by another trainer, Carol [Welsh] and myself,” she laughed.

“We must’ve been lying on the trailer bed of the ute for half an hour, holding the pups in place with our hands, shoulders, heads… anything we could manage. 

“Eight-week-old Lab Goldie crosses are a lot heavier than you think!”

Known as the ‘i’ litter, Ivan, India, Issy, Imran, Ivor and Ira would all follow different career paths as Assistance Dogs.

Some were placed with a person with a physical disability, while others provided support to educational facilities. 

Paws for thought: India is the only Assistance Dog still with us from the original photograph taken by Leader photographer John Veage in 2005. Picture: John Veage

Paws for thought: India is the only Assistance Dog still with us from the original photograph taken by Leader photographer John Veage in 2005. Picture: John Veage

Calm and caring, India understands 110 commands, in addition to her intuitive ability to anticipate what others need. She was at the forefront of the Reading Labs initiative, a program that sent dogs and their wheelchair partners into primary schools to help young children practise reading.

India was well-known for placing her paw on the pirate or firetruck, or whatever caught the attention of the child.

This dog also assisted special needs children at Heathcote Primary School, Lucas Heights Community School and even calmed senior students facing their HSC by visiting Georges River College Senior Campus Oatley with her handler, a high school teacher.

Puppy Educator and handler Dori Stratton said her life is so much richer because of the time volunteering with Assistance Dogs Australia.

“I’ve made lifelong friends who share a love of animals and helping the vulnerable. I’ve seen the difference these dogs make in the lives of people who rarely get a break.” 

Today the organisation places more than 35 dogs a year, and its programs now include Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Dogs for military and police, and dogs for families with a child with Autism.

At any given time, 50 dogs are in training. 

CEO Richard Lord said the demand for Assistance dogs is overwhelming.

“This year, we have brought a record-breaking number of pups into our training program in an attempt to reduce the waiting lists,” Mr Lord said.

“Now, we need desperately need Puppy Educators in Sutherland Shire, St George and the Illawarra.” 

To find out more about becoming a Puppy Educator, visit assistancedogs.org.au