Queensland’s Sunshine Coast is home to some special four-legged friends making a difference to children’s lives.
Smart Pups Assistance Dogs is the brainchild of founder and CEO Patricia McAlister, who is passionate about the benefits a canine companion from Smart Pups can provide for children with special needs.
“I founded this organization because I was asked to help a friend who had a child with a disability. “They asked me to train a dog for them and I’ve seen the amazing success and the difference it made,” she explains.
This experience was the catalyst for Smart Pups as it exists today.
The dogs don’t just provide comfort and companionship – they offer potentially lifesaving skills and support.
“We train dogs for children with epilepsy, children with autism, children with diabetes, mobility issues… really any task that we can train the dog (to do) to give children with disabilities a more independent life,” explains Patricia.
The demand for Smart Pups’ services has grown exponentially since the organisation started.
“The reception of the wider community about Smart Pups is just amazing,” says Patricia. “I never imagined for one moment it was going to grow to this extent – the demand is massive.”
“We never have less than 50 people on our waiting list and it grows every day. As the word gets out there, the demand gets bigger,” she says.
With growing demand comes a growing team, and Patricia now has 15 staff on board including seven dedicated trainers. The other members of the team provide invaluable support as kennel staff, puppy raisers and socialisers.
As of early 2019, Smart Pups have approximately 50 dogs in training and Patricia is proud to say that the organisation has placed about 150 dogs Australia-wide, with each pup improving the quality of a child’s life.
The dogs are mainly Labradors and Golden Retrievers, with Labradoodles chosen for children who may have hair allergies.
“They fit the role best,” says Patricia.
Patricia has also been instrumental at a legislative level, and has truly paved the way for change in this area.
“It took us five years, but we did change legislation… to allow dogs to be placed with children under 18 providing they had an alternative handler,” she says.
Working with such cute and cuddly team members does come with challenges. Public perception can cause difficulties.
It takes many hours of training to get the pups where they need to be to work as an assistance dog, however not everyone sees them as working animals.
“One of the challenges is that the public all want to pet assistance dogs and that does distract the dogs from their work,” explains Patricia.
The flipside is that public awareness and recognition of the dogs can have unexpected benefits for their owners.
“It really does make a difference to these children when they’re in the community. People come up, they want to talk about what their dog does. They want to talk to these kids and this helps them get this interaction into the community, and particularly when they hear what some of the tasks that these dogs can do,” explains Patricia.
As proudly not-for-profit organisation, Smart Pups volunteers are kept busy fundraising and also have a local charity shop that assists them in their efforts however like many not-for-profits they do rely heavily on donations.
For Patricia and her team, the result of their hard work and dedication is the joy on the faces of children whose lives have been forever changed for the better, thanks to their Smart Pups companion.
“It’s overwhelmingly rewarding to see that we can make this kind of difference.”