Walking side by side
The AADI puppies who will grow up to help children with autism
The cause and effect between adorable puppies and the coos that ensue when they’re around, is almost universal. But the gorgeous Golden Retriever/ Labrador cross pups you can see on these pages are more than just a cuddly friend, they will eventually become assistance dogs for children with autism, a service that is badly needed in Ireland.
“We saw that there was a need out there for it and since we’ve launched we obviously see that even more now,” says Nuala Geraghty, the CEO of Autism Assistance Dogs Ireland and one of the founding members who set up the charity in 2010.
“Irish Guide Dogs also train dogs for children with autism but it’s a secondary service as opposed to the primary service. We can’t keep up with the demand,” she says. Alarmingly, there is currently a five-year waiting list for dogs like this. Nuala says that the list has actually been closed for the last two years and that telling hopeful families this news can be very difficult.
“In that time we have kept records of the amount of calls and emails we’ve had and we’ve had at least another 800 enquiries. It’s awful but if we could get more funding it would be great,” says Nuala.
In order to try and alleviate this pressure, Nuala and her team have started the charity’s first breeding programme and in April 2017, they welcomed eight new puppies. However, this is time-consuming in itself, a process that began two years ago.
“We realised that there was a need to do it [breeding] so we had to look at breeding and identified puppies to bring on to the programme. Then they have to go through a whole year of being puppy fostered to make sure that their temperament is right, that they’re okay with everything and that they’re not afraid of anything,” Nuala explains.
“After that they have all the health testing like elbow and hip X-rays, they have to do DNA testing, we go through all of that before they’re accepted onto the breeding programme. We wouldn’t normally breed until around the age of two, when they’re a bit more mature. So that’s why everything takes so long. You can identify a dog but it’s still two years before it will have a litter of puppies and then obviously you have to find the right child then to go with them.”
AADI started off as a relatively small charity but Nuala says they have big plans for the future. They are hoping to grow enough to be able to train 20 assistance dogs by 2020, which means they will have to take on more instructors to help out. The breeding programme allows the charity to have their own supply of puppies but it also affords them other benefits.
“We’ve more control and input into how they’re brought up in the first eight weeks of their lives,” says Nuala, as this can have a big impact on the type of dog the puppy turns out to be. “With our puppies, we did what was like a puppy enrichment and socialisation programme with them starting at three days old, doing the early neurological stimulation for the first 16 days and for the next period we were doing startle responses and stuff like that,” she says. “All of those things help them to be able to cope better with things like stress and diseases because they’re not as prone to disease. We’re just giving them the very best start in life.”
When a puppy is two- months-old they are placed with a volunteer foster family who will bring them up for the first year of their life. They are trained to the Assistance Dogs International standards and Eleanor Finn, the puppy foster care supervisor, meets the family and will go to see the puppy on a regular basis to make sure they are progressing right and to run puppy classes.
The total cost of training a dog is €15,000 and while AADI retain ownership of the dogs, their foster families take on the general day-to-day expenses. It’s these families who do all the hard work says Nuala as they do the training and go through the trying puppy chewing stage. e family will also take the puppy out in public to help them socialise.
“The puppy wears a little red jacket with the AADI logo on so they have access to go into public places. e more they see and do at that age the better they will be as an assistance dog later in life,” Nuala says.
“The child wears a belt and there’s a link which goes to the dog’s jacket, so the child can’t run off. Then there’s a handle which we put on the back of the dog’s jacket which the child can hold onto. The parent holds the lead and gives the vocal command to the dog when they’re out and about in a public environment or in a public place. The main part is that it’s safety,” says Nuala.
“A lot of it has to do with the sensory side of things because lots of children with autism have no sense of danger. ere could be a noise, a sound or light that we might not take too much notice of, but to try to get out of the situation an autistic child might run across the road. Before the parent might have been holding onto the child’s hand whereas now they’re attached to the dog and it gives them that freedom I suppose. It reduces anxiety in everybody to be honest and it gives the child the opportunity to be able to cope in situations that it wouldn’t normally be able to cope in,” Nuala says.
Even though the majority of dogs go to the families of children with autism, there is no cut-off age and where the dog is place is largely circumstantial. “The oldest teenager is 16 now so that’s one of the latest dogs that we have placed. It very much depends on the family and the child and they would all have to be assessed as well but we would try and help as many people as we can,” says Nuala.
The dogs often have a calming effect and act as a source of comfort for the children, with many developing a very close bond with their pet. Nuala describes how Ben, aged 12, who struggles to explain his own feelings, relays them through his assistance dog, Chester.
“Chester comes over to him when he is sad,” she says. “What his mum says is that he seems to portray his feelings through the dog. He might say Chester is feeling a bit stressed and she knows then that that means he is feeling stressed about something.”
Having an assistance dog in the home can actually improve the quality of life for the whole family and they can help to prevent judgement from onlookers. “We find that there is pressure put on the other kids in the family. It’s the very simple things that we probably take for granted, even a trip to the shop for a pint of milk can be an ordeal. When I’m dog training people will smile because I’ve got a dog with me but I think with a child with autism, because they have no visual or physical disability, they [the parents] are probably judged by people, the child on the floor having a meltdown,” Nuala says.
“At least with the dog it brings across that there’s a disability, so people are more likely to come and ask the parents if they want some help.”
For more information visit www.autismassistancedogsireland.ie