How our assistance dogs are graduating with full marks

Meet the innovative team working with the Dogs for Life program to provide assistance dogs to veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and people with disabilities.

La Trobe University leads an innovative program that helps individuals achieve therapeutic goals, improve their quality of life, enhance independence, and foster greater societal participation.

Meet the team working to provide assistance dogs to veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and people with disabilities: Lead Researcher Tiffani Howell, dog trainer Lana Field, and one of the essential puppy raisers, alumna Alice Monkman.

A program making a meaningful difference

Tiffani and Silver

Tiffani Howell is the Lead Researcher of the Dogs for Life assistance dog program and a Research Fellow at La Trobe University. She has extensive experience in research on animal welfare, dog-owner relationships and dog behaviour.

When asked about the significance of the Dogs for Life program, Tiffani explained that they train dogs to increase quality of life and independence for people with disabilities or psychological needs.

‘The purpose of the program is to train assistance dogs for veterans with PTSD, and occasionally other people with disabilities. Assistance dogs aren’t pets; they provide an important disability support role for their handler.’

The dogs undergo both individual and group training to ensure they can offer vital assistance to their handlers once they are matched. Tiffani emphasised the importance of the dogs being trained to provide a variety of different supports.

‘The dogs can help people with PTSD sleep better, become more independent and be able to go out into their community on their own, and improve their overall quality of life.’

When asked about the most rewarding stage of the program, Tiffani highlighted the moment when the dogs meet their matched handlers. Witnessing the bond between the dogs and their handlers inspires tremendous motivation in the puppy raisers – the volunteers who care for a potential assistance dog until they are trained and matched with a handler.

‘As cute as the early puppy stage is, the most profound part of the process for a lot of the puppy raisers is when they meet or learn about the person their puppy will eventually be supporting. It gives them a boost of motivation and reminds them how important the work they’re doing is.’

Training, the matching process, and ongoing support

Lana and assistance dog

La Trobe Bendigo's Dog Lab trainer, Lana Field, has the hefty task of preparing young assistance dogs in training for their future role in helping humans. Lana is a formally recognised and accredited dog trainer who has worked in both Victoria and Western Australia.

Her role is of great significance as she must ensure that these important pups can one day be daily support dogs for their new owners.

‘The dogs need to be able to empower people to be able to do things they struggle to do without support, like go to shops on their own, walk around block without a family member, or attend an appointment. We train the assistance dogs to offer another avenue of support for these activities and many more.’

Lana's involvement in the matching process between assistance dogs and their new owners is crucial, as it demands careful consideration of how each dog will integrate into the recipient's life.

‘The matching process works by first of all looking at the personality of each dog and the lifestyle they would be suited to. We then organise for the dogs to meet the participants and let them get a feel of the dog, get to know their personality, and further discuss the dog’s nature. After this stage, if a good fit is found, a handover time is organised.’

Following the dog's successful placement in its new home and a suitable participant matched, Lana remains dedicated to providing ongoing support to both the new owner and their canine companion.

‘Support is always available. We are there to help build those new relationships and settle the dog into its new home. After that, we visit regularly, and then slowly less as things come together and goals are achieved.’

The puppy raising experience

Puppy raisers walking the assistance dogsBeing a puppy raiser for the program primarily involves providing a loving and secure home for an assistance dog in training, following program guidelines, and dedicating daily interaction time with the dog for a year. Dogs for Life covers all essential expenses and provides training and ongoing support to ensure the puppy's well-being and development.

Alice Monkman completed a Bachelor of Applied Science and Master of Occupational Therapy Practice at La Trobe (2021), and currently works as an Occupational Therapist at Everyday Independence. She is also one of the puppy raisers for the Dogs for Life program.

Her journey as a puppy raiser began six years ago during her first year of university. Initially, she joined the program with the simple intention of spending more time with dogs. However, the experience quickly turned into something much more fulfilling.

‘Dogs for Life is such a caring, supportive community from the head of the program through to every volunteer and employee I've met. It’s a privilege to be a part of the training of an assistance dog that will have a life-changing impact for its future human.’

Having grown up surrounded by dogs, Alice couldn't have asked for a better opportunity than training a puppy while completing her degree. It was a perfect match, blending her love for dogs with her academic journey.

‘In my role, I have the puppy live with me, come to the office, to my classes, and nearly everywhere else I go. We focus on encouraging positive, calm behaviour and appropriate exposure to different environments.’

Alongside all the joys of being a puppy trainer, Alice acknowledges that the toughest challenge lies in dispelling misconceptions about the dogs and their responsibilities.

‘People often assume the dogs don't get any time off. But it's so important for the dog to have downtime, and I can assure you they definitely get plenty of it!’

Since graduating her degree in 2021, Alice has continued her role as a puppy raiser for the Dogs for Life program.

‘I have found fitting a dog into my life quite manageable. Going places just takes an extra 15 minutes. I love attending group and individual training sessions. It's not only rewarding to make a positive impact, but it also gives me the opportunity to explore new places and get out of the house.’

If you want to do something meaningful and hang out with dogs all day, consider signing up to be a puppy raiser, recommends Alice.

‘Just do it! Reach out and have a phone call with the team and see how a pup could fit into your life. I never thought it would be this fun or that I would have grown as much as I have just by raising a puppy.’

Want to hang out with a dog for a year? Sign up to become a puppy raiser today!

Fostering a Dogs for Life Assistance Dog requires time, patience and dedication. No experience is necessary but showing enthusiasm, commitment and interest is part of the application process.