The Monkey Princess (stellanova) wrote,
The Monkey Princess
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canine companion

Well, this puts my glorious Irish Blog Awards nomination into perspective. There was a piece in yesterday's Irish Times about a family with an autistic son whose lives have been transformed by the arrival of an assistance dog.
Then Whooley started to notice that her son had an empathy with animals. Murray befriended a stray cat, Tinkerbell, who took up residence in their house. Watching fish in a tank helped calm him when he was upset. And he enjoyed riding horses. So when she saw an Irish Times article about Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind providing assistance dogs for families of children with autism, Whooley sat up. "I immediately said to my husband, that's it, we are going to try and get a dog."

I can only assume that was my piece on the Guide Dog centre, in which I met a man whose son had beeen hugely helped by an assistance dog. I pitched that piece after reading something in a British magazine about the lack of funding for guide dog centres and I remember hoping that the piece would do some good and that people would support these projects, but this is just amazing. And now I know that whatever fluffy shite I write on a regular basis, at least once something I wrote did something good.



For Fiona Whooley, bringing her young son, Murray, out of the house used to be enormously stressful. Murray has autism, and even on mundane trips to the shop, bank or pharmacy he would sit on the ground screaming, refusing to move or demanding to go home. But last Christmas the eight-year-old happily traipsed around a heaving supermarket with his mother and sister, content to queue for 45 minutes at the tills. The difference? An assistance dog called Clive. His arrival, last June, has transformed Murray, who was diagnosed as being on an autistic spectrum at the age of two.

"Initially we thought Murray was slow to develop speech and an upset baby. Once we left the house he screamed, and going to friends' houses or out shopping was a nightmare," says Whooley. "You'd keep hoping it would be something he'd grow out of, but on his second birthday we had a party for him, and he screamed the whole time. It was dreadful. That was my wake-up call. That day I said, no, it's something more. He was diagnosed about six weeks later."

Murray started making progress at a local school for children with autism, and Whooley worked hard to help him overcome his aversion to going outside, but he was still only really happy at home. "If you took him outside, to restaurants, shopping or through airports, he would sit and scream. Murray looks adorable, and people could never understand. I was forever being reprimanded for my bold child. It was really stressful," she says. "It was very hard, because his sister, Sorcha, is only a year older, and you want her to have normal everyday activities and to be able to do things. It was hard on everybody."

Then Whooley started to notice that her son had an empathy with animals. Murray befriended a stray cat, Tinkerbell, who took up residence in their house. Watching fish in a tank helped calm him when he was upset. And he enjoyed riding horses. So when she saw an Irish Times article about Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind providing assistance dogs for families of children with autism, Whooley sat up. "I immediately said to my husband, that's it, we are going to try and get a dog."

The family was assessed, and within a few months Whooley found herself at the organisation's training centre in Cork, waiting nervously to meet the trained assistance dog that her family had been allotted. "Your dog's bed was there in your room, and his blanket and bowls and brushes - everything was laid out, but there was no dog. The next morning they brought Clive into the room to meet me. It was amazing, like being handed a new baby," says Whooley.

Clive is the first goldendoodle, or golden retriever-poodle cross, on the programme. "As a breed they are fantastic. They are very clever, very successful at training." After a week of learning how to command Clive, Whooley brought the new addition home to a rapturous reception from Murray. "We were very lucky. The bond was instantaneous," she says.

They started to venture outside together. Whooley controlled the dog, who in turn was attached by a special belt to Murray. Soon, with Clive in tow, Murray was happy to go to the shops, use public transport and eat in restaurants. Even spending hours shopping in the post-Christmas sales was not a problem. "For everyday, normal things it's fantastic. And on top of that we can do bigger things," says Whooley. Clive has a pet passport now, so the whole family will go to Spain this summer. And, as an unexpected bonus, Clive is also an excellent guard dog, she says, laughing over a cacophony of barks as someone comes to the gate.

Since Clive arrived Murray has also become more aware of his surroundings. "He wants to feed the dog, and he washes Clive in the bath, hosing him down, helping to dry him. That's amazing for a kid with autism. They are usually introverted; it's all about self. I can see such a change in Murray. He's so happy. We are out every day. Murray is also sleeping through the night for the first time, with the dog in his room."

Clive has also changed how the public views Murray. "Before, other people avoided us. They just saw Murray as a screaming child, and they wouldn't really try to interact with him," says Whooley. "Now people make a fuss out of Clive, and Murray is really proud. It opens up the world of autism to other people."

Although Murray stayed put in open spaces, many children with autism bolt when they are outside. Being connected to an assistance dog can help protect them from running on to roads, and it reduces stress for the parents, too, according to instructor Cliona O'Rourke, who built up her expertise in Canada before bringing the training programme to Ireland.

"A lot of the kids like the grounding effect of having the connection of the dog. It seems to calm them," she says. "It's a very rewarding programme, and for us it can be very emotional. I get text-message pictures of the child at the dentist with the dog there, or the child hugging the dog. People who haven't been around autistic children mightn't realise the things that other children do that they take for granted, and that it's such a big deal for them, but it's a huge deal."

Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind is hosting a black-tie Golden Ball at the Stillorgan Park Hotel, Co Dublin, on Saturday, February 24th. Contact Melanie Cunningham at melanie@guidedogs.ie or 01-7978740. For more information about assistance dogs, contact Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind at 1850-506300 or info@guidedogs.ie

THE COST OF A DOG

Canine companions such as Clive can transform the lives of children with autism and their families. But, with each assistance dog costing about €35,000 to train, the approach is not cheap. Dogs are free to families that qualify, and there is no shortage of demand. Twenty-four families of children with autism have already received assistance dogs, and Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind hopes to place 16 more dogs this year. More than 300 more families have inquired or are on a waiting list. The organisation has received partial funding from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, and the organisation continues to raise money for the programme. Funds are handled separately from general donations, so if you would like to give, please specify it is for the assistance-dogs programme.

Thanks to glitzfrau for letting me know about the piece - the Times was sold out in our newsagents yesterday so I didn't see this until this morning.
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