When Aaron Burke’s dog Gus was being treated for cancer at the local veterinary clinic, the nine-year-old missed him so much he would sit in the dog’s empty basket after school.
And when his beloved pet died, Aaron was devastated.
Gus, a black labrador-retriever cross, wasn’t just a normal family pet: he was Aaron’s best friend.
When he came to live with Aaron and his family at their home in Ballincollig, Co Cork, nearly five years previously, the dog utterly transformed day-to-day life for the little boy, who had been diagnosed with autism a few months before his third birthday.
Life had been difficult up to the time the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind had provided Gus, an assistance dog, to Aaron and his family.
Aaron’s mother, Kim, 46, recalls: “We were experiencing a lot of meltdowns caused by anxiety. Even taking Aaron to the shop could result in him becoming overwhelmed by sounds, smells and crowds.
But once Gus came on the scene, everything changed. Holding his dog’s handle and rubbing his fur provided Aaron with a sense of independence and security which enabled him to attend his older brother’s football matches and go to shopping centres and the cinema with his family.
“Gus came into our lives and changed everything for the better,” says Kim.
“He was such an amazing dog and was Aaron’s best friend.
“Going to shops and different places became more enjoyable for Aaron and less stressful for him and us. He would rub Gus’s head when he would go into the shopping centre and calm him down; he was able to cope.
“He knew he had his best friend by his side. They played together and even went on the trampoline together. Gus made the whole family feel calm and was a wonderful presence around the house.”
However, in November 2016, after five years with the Burkes, Gus passed away.
“Aaron was lost without Gus,” Kim said.
“I didn’t know how to cope.
“We were all so upset and sad. We had forgotten how hard life was before Gus came into our lives.
Faced with Aaron’s distress, and their realisation of just how much the whole family had loved and depended on Gus, Kim once again contacted the Guide Dogs organisation, which promised to try to find another match for Aaron.
The cost of breeding training and maintaining each Guide Dog partnership is almost €53,000, yet more than 80% of the charity’s income comes from fundraising and voluntary donations.
This year the charity, which currently oversees around 218 active partnerships, expects to train 40 partnerships, and a further 50 next year.
To the family’s delight, in February 2017, four-year-old Wilson, another black labrador-retriever cross arrived and, since then, life has once again been transformed for Aaron, now aged 12.
“We only had a short time between Gus’s death and Wilson’s arrival but Aaron’s anxiety was so high during that period; he was very stressed all the time and having meltdowns,” said Kim.
“We could not calm him. He would get so anxious, but as soon as Wilson arrived, things calmed, as Aaron knew he had a buddy again.
“Wilson was so calm when Aaron would get stressed, he would rub him and they would both sit on the floor together.
"Wilson also has a calming effect on everyone in the house.
“I’d like to thank everyone from Irish Guide Dogs for all the support and help they have given us through the years. It’s an amazing charity full of amazing people that I hope will train many more superheroes for all the children who need one.
“We were so blessed to get Wilson; once he came into our lives we could all breathe again.”
The Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind is, meanwhile, holding its national fundraising campaign tomorrow.
To help, volunteer, buy a pin at any of the organisation’s collections across the country - full list at www.guidedogs.ie — or donate online. Alternatively, text WOOF to 50300 to donate €4 to Irish Guide Dogs! Irish Guide Dogs will receive a minimum of €3.60.
Contact Anne Burns at email@example.com or 021 4878 259 to get involved.