Assistance dogs lending a helping paw

assistance dogs

The lives of children with autism are being greatly improved thanks to specially trained assistance dogs. Chloe Warren reports

It’s a story familiar to families right around Australia: you notice your child isn’t following the typical timeline of developmental progress, and out of growing concern, you take them to see the family GP. You attend a series of appointments with paediatric specialists until at last, you are given the diagnosis—your child is on the autism spectrum.

“That kind of thing stays with you—I’ll never forget that moment,” says seven-year-old Rook’s dad, Adam. Rook’s autism was diagnosed when he was just three years old, and his parents immediately started looking for ways to help him relate to those around him. Throughout his investigations, Adam started reading about assistance dogs in the US, and the positive impact they had had on teenagers with autism. His research trail eventually led him to Assistance Dogs Australia (ADA), which subsequently published his story in its spring edition of Pupdate last year.

ADA has been training assistance dogs for young people with autism for five years now, and its program has come along in leaps and bounds since Vet Practice last caught up with it in 2014. Last year, it provided 34 assistance dogs to families and individuals across Australia; its clients include people with physical disabilities, dementia, post-traumatic stress disorder as well as those with autism. Although only 12 of those dogs went to families with young people with autism, the ADA was able to reach 75 additional families through the provision of workshops and occupational therapy programs.

“The first step in applying for an assistance dog is to attend the PAWS workshop,” explains Alberto Alvarez-Campos, the ADA national programs manager. The PAWS (Parents Autism Workshops and Support) program provides families with all the necessary information about how to best welcome a dog into a family with an autistic child. Although the main intention of the program is to ensure parents can make an informed decision about applying for an assistance dog, it also educates families who are considering adopting a pet dog.

Not surprisingly, the training process for an assistance dog is rigorous, but it’s made clear throughout the PAWS program that the family has to work too. “We have a duty of care towards the dog, as well as the family,” asserts Alvarez-Campos. “Families who are able to undertake puppy education do so for 12 to 14 months, but if they can’t demonstrate that the dog has been well taken care of, then we reserve the right not to give the dog back to them.”

It’s true that there are plenty of success stories around assistance dogs, but the animals aren’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Every child is different, and the autism spectrum is extremely diverse. “Some parents came in and they thought that this dog was going to save the day but then a few days into the workshop they realised that owning a dog probably wasn’t for them,” recalls Adam. “The organisation really cares about what they are doing. They’re not trying to persuade anyone of anything.”

After a great deal of research, and a period on the ADA waiting list, Adam and his family adopted Turbo the black labrador, who had already been trained as a puppy. The benefits were immediate.

“Rook’s always hated having his hair cut, and we had tried everything,” says Adam. “Now Turbo gets his hair cut and Rook gets his hair cut. He’ll have a picture ready of whoever he wants to look like, whether that’s Star Lord or Spiderman.”

Before adopting Turbo, Rook used to suffer from regular night terrors. His parents were considering trialling medication, but once Turbo took up residence under their son’s bed (under Rook’s instruction!), Rook’s sleeping habits drastically improved. “He tells us Turbo eats nightmares!” says Adam, laughing.

“All you want for your child is for them to be happy. He loves to play, he loves to run and he’s always wanted a friend. He’d never had that before but now he’s got a real friend he can interact with and they help each other out.”—Adam (father of Rook)

“Going shopping used to be pandemonium. Now we go to the shops and Rook takes the handle for Turbo and holds on, and it’s his job to look after him. With those guys working together, we can spend whole days at the shops,” says Adam. “All you want for your child is for them to be happy. He loves to play, he loves to run and he’s always wanted a friend. He’d never had that before but now he’s got a real friend he can interact with and they help each other out.”

For those still on the waiting list, or unable to adopt a dog, ADA also offers free occupational therapy sessions.

“They are just like any other visit to an OT, but the main conductor is the assistance dog. Because of the natural tendency of the dog to be a bit unpredictable, but in a very positive way, it is very engaging for the child,” explains Alvarez-Campos. “The session can be conducted with different objectives from reducing anxiety to supporting speech and numeracy—whatever it is, the dog will be involved.”

Once a litter is born, the pups spend eight weeks with the breeder, before going off to puppy training with a volunteer educator for 12 months. The dogs then spend between 18 weeks to six months in advanced training with the ADA, until they are ready to live with their adoptive families and commence their important duties as a full-time assistance dog.

Dr Joseph Sulyok of the Heathcote Veterinary Clinic in Sydney works closely with the ADA to take care of these animals housed on-site at their facility in Waterfall, Sydney. “We’ve had a couple of dogs who have stayed local with their adoptive families, so it’s been nice to stay in touch with them—but usually we see them when they are puppies and then once they have retired.”

One of the main differences between the veterinary care of assistance dogs and that of standard domesticated animals is the need to carefully monitor their capacity to fulfil their assistance role, such that the ADA can make an informed decision about the dog’s retirement.

“Sometimes they won’t be able to perform their duties, and that could be due to health issues like arthritis; that’s a big one. It depends on what type of assistance dog they are and how active they need to be,” says Dr Sulyok. “Sometimes we do have to be conscious of the clients in regard to how we phrase certain things, in case they are particularly sensitive. Other than that, the care doesn’t look much different to treatment of any other animal.”

Despite the ADA’s successful breeding program, one of the main barriers to their ability to reach more families and individuals is the shortage of volunteer puppy educators.

“We are always trying to increase our reach, so we are growing our team of instructors and our facilities to provide more support to the demand,” explains Alvarez-Campos. “We need puppy educators, so we can place more puppies in the community, but there aren’t enough suitable volunteers applying for the program.

“It takes up to two years and $30,000 to train each dog, and to prepare and support each client throughout the working life of the animal. Without the support of people who work on a volunteer basis, and donations made to ADA, we just couldn’t exist.”


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