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Kiwi youth with disabilities bond with Rarotonga dogs

Wednesday 15 March 2023 | Written by Joanne Holden | Published in Local, National


Kiwi youth with disabilities bond with Rarotonga dogs
A group from Recreate NZ helped out with exercising the dogs housed at SPCA on Tuesday. 23031427 Photo: Joanne Holden

Groups of Kiwi young people with disabilities became “honorary volunteers” for the SPCA this week, taking the dogs for their morning walk during a field trip to the Cook Islands.

More than 30 youth from Recreate NZ have been visiting Rarotonga from New Zealand as part of the organisation’s adventure programme, with many opting to travel inland to pet the dogs housed at the SPCA and amble up to Wigmore’s Waterfall with them for their dose of daily exercise. 

“Amazing. Loved it,” Recreate NZ national programmes coordinator Sophie McLaughlan said. 

“It was really cool walking the dogs, and seeing the beautiful waterfall. Also, it’s nice going into the bush.” 

Recreate NZ has been running social, recreational, educational, and adventure services for young people with mild to moderate intellectual disabilities since 2002. 

McLaughlan said participants start on half-day programmes, before advancing to overnighters. “Our overseas group are often regulars, so people that we’ve known for a long time,” she said. 

“Each year, we do a trip overseas somewhere – so either Australia or Rarotonga. It [Rarotonga] is just a beautiful place to go, we love it here.” 

Alex Davison, 23, bonds with her walking companion as part of her trip to Rarotonga from New Zealand. 23031426 Photo: Joanne Holden
Alex Davison, 23, bonds with her walking companion as part of her trip to Rarotonga from New Zealand. 23031426 Photo: Joanne Holden

McLaughlan said they had brought 36 youth, split into three groups of 12, to Rarotonga this year. Two of the three groups had ventured to the SPCA, one on Saturday and the other on Tuesday. 

“Some of them are overseas for the first time, so they’re very happy to be here. Every day, they’re just like, ‘I’m in Rarotonga!’ It’s very cool,” McLaughlan said. 

“The SPCA has been very hospitable. The volunteers have been incredible, and so amazing at helping our group out with walking the dogs. We’ve loved it.” 

McLaughlan said the groups had also enjoyed a Muri Lagoon cruise, snorkelling, watching coconut husking, making ei, and “heaps of swimming”. 

SPCA president and shelter manager David Pokia said the visiting youth were “pretty brave and very well-travelled”, especially those who ventured up to the shelter in the rain on Saturday.

“It was raining before they arrived, and it was raining after they left – but there was a long enough break for them to take the dogs up to the waterfall,” Pokia said. 

“They were in awful weather, but their attitude was great.” 

Pokia said having “honorary volunteers” to help exercise the animals was “actually huge for our dogs”. 

“It’s important for the dogs to have interaction, even for one hour. Dogs get stir crazy, just like you and I.” 

The group’s visit marked SPCA volunteer Amanda Torr’s last day with the organisation. “It’s been lovely. Good to see them taking an interest in the dogs,” Torr said. “Some of these dogs are very shy, and a bit weird around strangers, but they were good.” 

Torr arrived in the Cook Islands about a year ago as part of Volunteer Service Abroad, a New Zealand agency working in international development. 

“When we found out about SPCA, which was probably about a month into our assignment, I started helping out here,” Torr said. 

“My contract finished. I was here on a one-year assignment, so it’s time to go home. It’s been a good time. 

“I’m going to miss the dogs. They’re so lovely.” 

Torr, who will be moving to Wellington, said her fellow volunteers were a “really good bunch to work with”. 

Her highlights from her assignment had been walking the dogs, getting to know them, and seeing how their personalities change after receiving plenty of human interaction. 

“Some of these dogs – like Petal, when we first came, you couldn’t get near her. She was snappy and horrible, but now she’s just lovely. A few of the dogs were like that. It’s great the way they’ve come around,” she said. 

“Thanks to SPCA for giving us this opportunity to bond.”