Anna Costello with her son Blake, who has autism, and his assistance dog Nemo. Photo: Charles Anderson

Nemo a best friend for Blake


When five-year-old Blake Costello is dropped by taxi back home every afternoon after school, Nemo will be waiting for him.

At first, Nemo will act as a loyal guard dog and bark over his concern for Blake arriving in a strange car. But then that concern will melt into something different. He will run out the door of their home and excitedly jump up all over Blake.

In most households, this would be expected – a dog and his boy. But this relationship is different to most. Blake has severe, non-verbal autism and Nemo is an assistance dog – specially trained for Blake’s needs.

“I learned a long time ago that there is no such thing as normal,” says Blake’s mum Anna.

The family received Nemo last December from Assistance Dogs New Zealand Trust (ADNZT) which is dedicated to matching dogs with people with different needs.

The dogs can be trained and bred to help people with everything from Down syndrome to cerebral palsy.

In Blake’s case, the hope was that Nemo would allow Blake to be able to walk around town and to school, without running away.

“And he is a runner,” says Anna.

Their home is surrounded by tall fences and hard to reach latches. Before Nemo, the idea of even walking into Richmond would not be entertained.

But now Blake can be attached to his dog via a special harness. Blake knows that Nemo is there to help him.

But also, Anna says their relationship has become more than that.

“There is a friendship growing. It’s slow, but it’s there.”

Nemo used to walk Blake down the road to Henley School but as Blake became stronger that walk has become more temperamental. For now, they use a taxi.

Next week is ADNZT’s annual appeal to help raise the $48,000 needed for each dog’s training.

It trains 15 Labrador puppies or retrievers each year, but there 74 families with young children on the waiting list for dogs.

Anna feels lucky that they could get Nemo after 18 months as the waitlist is now about four years long.

She was never a “dog person” but says Nemo has slotted into the family perfectly.

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