Big smiles greet George Dempsey when he arrives to transport students with special education needs to and from school in Hamilton.
For the past three years George has worked as a driver for Go Bus Transport, one of the Ministry’s transport providers.
Twice a day George jumps into his van and heads off to do his pick ups and drop offs. But unlike many other drivers, George takes a special friend along for the ride – Lobo, his black Labrador.
In his spare time George volunteers as a puppy raiser for Assistance Dogs NZ. So with the permission of the student’s parents and their school, he does his rounds with Lobo in tow.
The intelligence and easy-going nature of trained assistance dog Lobo have made him a natural companion for students on the Ministry’s special education transport.
“The kids just love it,” George says. “They think it’s awesome having a dog on board every day. If there’s room, then a dog will come with me morning and night.”
Originally from the Manawatu, George and his wife moved to Hamilton three years ago to be closer to her brother and open a pet shop. When George saw an advertisement in the local paper from Go Bus Transport looking for drivers, he decided to apply.
“We have a special needs child ourselves so I know a little bit about working with these sorts of children,” he says. “It is really neat to be part of these kids’ lives and watch them grow and develop over time.
“I enjoy seeing the kids each day, it is just awesome. They always give me a nice big smile and when they come out of school and see me I always get a great reaction.”
George, who has a background in farming, says he has always loved dogs so when he heard about a Hamilton organisation that was looking for volunteers to help raise assistance dogs he signed up.
He helps raise one dog at a time for a period of 12 to 14 months and teaches them the basics, including household rules, good manners and social skills. The assistance dogs then go off for advanced training for their future roles working with people in the community with disabilities.
George was speaking to his manager when the pair had the idea of taking the dogs along on his daily school transport runs.
Together they got permission from the children’s parents, and ensured the school was happy with the idea.
When George started bringing the first dog on his runs, he says the kids all wanted to sit beside it and pat it. “They were all very excited,” he says. “I had to explain that it’s a working dog so we have to do things a bit differently.”
George says while the children love having the dogs come for a ride in the van, it’s not just beneficial for the students. “It’s really great for the dogs and for their social skills as many of them will end up working with children.”
George’s last assistance dog went to Tauranga after its advanced training so that it could work with a young girl with autism. Assistance dogs often also work with children who have epilepsy, diabetes, are amputees or are in wheelchairs.
Outside of George’s special needs run and as part of puppy development, he visits other Hamilton schools where his assistance dogs socialise and meet other students with disabilities.
Special education assistance drivers work throughout the country to deliver students safely to and from school every day.