Autism assistance dogs make profound life-changing differences to children on the spectrum. Helen O’Callaghan met up with a family to see how they have adapted to their pet
The first time Ruby Muldowney met her dog, Chip, was when he came to her Co Offaly home in the company of another dog, Dougal.
Nuala Geraghty, founder and CEO of Mallow-based Autism Assistance Dogs Ireland (AADI), had brought the two dogs to see which would better suit Ruby. The 10-year-old has autism and a rare genetic condition called IDIC15. She has delayed speech, low IQ for her age, poor muscle tone and is hyper-sensitive to sounds and stimuli that most people take for granted in their daily lives.
Recalling that day in February 2018 when Chip and Dougal came to call, Ruby’s mum Sinéad says Chip’s a very calm dog.
The connection was that immediate. — Chip, a very obedient yellow Labrador who listens intently, seemed like he was right for Ruby. But first he had to go through more intensive training than an autism assistance dog would typically have had at that stage. The big question was would he pass.
“We got word he had passed at the end of April,” says Sinéad, whose husband, Liam, travelled down to Cork for the mandatory four-day training with Chip — for example, to get used to being in a busy environment with him, so Chip could learn Liam was master and so they could bond. At the end of the four days, Chip went back to Offaly with Liam. “Ruby was beaming. There was no sleep that night,” says Sinéad.
Since then, Chip has transformed life in the Muldowney home — Ruby has a 13-year-old sister, Mia, and a seven-year-old brother, Zac.
Everything the family hoped an assistance dog would be for Ruby — from that first moment when she was just two and a half years old and they put her name on the waiting list for the dog — has happened. Ruby’s a child who bolts, who runs without any sense of danger and, over the years, as she got bigger and her buggies got correspondingly smaller, she’d have meltdowns when her parents tried to explain ‘no Ruby, we can’t give you a lift on our shoulders — Daddy can’t carry you, he has a sore back’.
“Now we get out of the car, get Chip organised, put a band with a belt around Ruby and a strap going from her to Chip’s jacket. Ruby grabs Chip’s handle and Liam or I lead Chip. It means we can get from A to B without multiple meltdowns, without the other kids getting stressed and embarrassed because people are looking.”
As her parents hoped, Chip’s helping Ruby create better connections socially. “She walks proudly beside him. People come up to her and ask her about Chip and she says ‘yes, he’s my dog’. She’s more talkative now — she’ll talk to anybody about Chip. Her gaze used to look to the side, not at the person. Now she’s looking at them, trying to explain, and she’s more focused on people’s questions.”
Before Chip, Ruby used to seek out quieter parts of the house when the noise of family life got too much for her. She’s much calmer now. “She’ll sit on the ground with him and pet him and he’ll just lie there very relaxed.”
Chip has also given Sinéad and Liam peace of mind at night. A light sleeper, Ruby used to wake every hour on the hour — now with Chip in her bedroom, she only wakes once, at 2.30am.
“If she gets up in the middle of the night, Chip will come in to us and make sure Ruby has made her way to our room and that she’s not roaming the house.”
With one in 65 children in Ireland having autism, demand for assistance dogs is “just massive”, says Geraghty, who set up AADI in 2010. Since then they’ve placed assistance dogs with approximately 37 families but they have 80 families on their waiting list and get about 10 enquiries a week. The organisation started a breeding programme a few years ago and they hope to expand this to about 10 breeding dogs, which will supply some of the demand.
The first Autism Assistance Dog Programme in Ireland accredited with Assistance Dogs International, each dog costs €22,000 and takes two years to train to the high standard critical for life-changing placement with a child with autism. “This isn’t respite, an hour a week of intervention or a week away in Disney World. This is a life-changing support for the child with autism and their family, a life line to a new and better world,” says Geraghty.
Families are never asked to raise money for their assistance dog. AADI is entirely supported by the generosity of the public and the charity was thrilled to be chosen alongside three other Irish charities recently to benefit from Woodies’ Heroes fundraising. Last year the Woodies’ fundraising campaign was a resounding success, with well over €1m raised (€1,177,000).
“The Woodies’ Heroes fundraiser will help us achieve our goals in every area, to increase the number of puppies being trained and to provide more assistance dogs to more families, who are desperately trying to cope,” says Geraghty.