Tim McCallum calls assistance dogs, “50:50 dogs” to describe the support he receives from Labrador Casper – “50 per cent physical and 50 per cent emotional”.
The classically trained tenor relies on Casper and a wheelchair to help him navigate his busy life. Tim’s work schedule includes performances plus roles as Peer Support Officer in the Spinal Unit of Princess Alexandra Hospital, and board member of Assistance Dogs Australia.
Tim lives with wife Mel and their son Nelson, four. The family adores Casper but knows to leave him alone when he is working or resting.
“Things are always rolling off my lap and Casper picks them up – keys, the television remote, my phone,” says Tim. “He also opens doors, helps with shopping and presses lift buttons. Before you ask how he knows which floor to press, he presses them all. The trip might be slow, but we get there.”
Assistance Dogs Australia is a non-profit that provides dogs at no cost. It relies on donations and sponsorship to train dogs, with $40,000 invested in each dog. Volunteer Puppy Educators teach the dogs the basics before they start their advanced training at about 12-months-old. The people assigned dogs must also undergo training.
When out, dogs wear special blue jackets to identify them as assistance dogs and owners carry a licence, like a driver’s licence, featuring a photo of them with their dog.
“Assistance Dogs are licenced to go pretty much anywhere with a few exceptions such as a hospital surgical theatre and parts of a zoo,” says Tim.
Last year, Casper accompanied Tim in taxis and on planes to Melbourne so he could record his first ever CD, ‘’Let Your Heart be Light” and also to the Gabba in Brisbane where he sang the National Anthem at the 2020 AFL Grand Final.
This year Assistance Dogs Australia is celebrating its 25th anniversary. The charity started with Mobility Assistance Dogs but has expanded over the years to provide Autism Assistance Dogs, PTSD Assistance Dogs for military, police and fire service officers and Educational Support Dogs for classrooms. Dogs support young victims of crime to give evidence in court.
“People think we are helping individuals, but we are helping the whole community because these dogs are keeping families together and supporting people with disability to participate more fully in life,” says CEO, Richard Lord.
“One of the most powerful things an Assistance Dog does is break down barriers. People approach someone with a disability more readily when they have an assistance dog by their side,” he said.
Dogs are monitored as they age, and a succession dog lined up in plenty of time. Retired dogs typically live with extended family. Tim was 18 when a diving accident resulted in serious spinal injuries. He has received three dogs from Assistance Dogs Australia in 21 years and his first two dogs, Buster and Roxy, were in his wedding party.
The Assistance Dogs Australia website is filled with real-life examples of how dogs help a wide range of humans stay engaged with life whether they live in a group home, with family or on their own.
All stories have a loving and skilled dog at its centre bringing inclusion to life not just for the person they support, but for their family and friends too.