Assistance dogs can play a vital role in the lives of people with autism, writes
IF you’re lucky, the saying goes, a dog will come into your life, steal your heart — and change everything.
It’s a heart-warming quote, and one which aptly describes the relationship between 20-year-old Murray Whooley and his beloved golden-doodle, Clive.
Clive came into Murray’s life shortly before his eighth birthday. He effortlessly won Murray’s heart, and — at least according to his mum, Fiona —changed everything for the Whooley household!
A trained autism assistance dog (and a handsome cross between a golden retriever and a poodle) Clive arrived in the Whooley family through the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind.
“Murray has autism and an intellectual disability, diagnosed when he was two,” says Fiona.
Prior to Clive’s arrival, she recalls, Murray would become deeply upset by any change in his routine.
This meant that leaving the family home in Rathmichael, Co Dublin, for any reason, for example, to visit relatives or even just to go shopping “was a nightmare experience” for everyone involved.
“Murray could not verbalise, and he would get physically sick if faced with any disruption of his routine,” says Fiona who recalls taking Murray on a particularly memorable holiday to Spain when he was four years old.
“We spent the whole two weeks in the apartment because we couldn’t go out or he would get ill.”
As a result, prior to Clive’s arrival, she recalls, the Whooley family was quite literally unable to do any of the “ordinary everyday things” that families do, because “change really upset Murray.”
Then, in June 2006, Clive arrived and the transformation was almost immediate. “Murray and Clive quickly developed an amazing bond. Once Murray became attached to the dog, we got to go everywhere - shops, the cinema, to MacDonalds, even to Croke Park.
“Clive just seemed to give Murray confidence and calmness and a sense of security. When we went out or abroad he always went with him — even onboard airplanes.”
All of a sudden, she says, the simple things of life became do-able. “Clive has been to Croke Park on All-Ireland football day — yet up to the time he came, I could not even bring Murray to watch his sister Sorcha play football.”
“Clive makes me happy. He’s fun. He’s my best friend and goes out for a walk with me every day.
Murray has his own view on his faithful friend: “He looks after me — he often puts his head under my hand so that I will pat him. He makes me feel secure.
“I talk to people a lot because they stop with their dogs and say hello to me and Clive. They often admire Clive and I show them my Instagram photographs.
“My favourite thing about Clive is that he’s my best friend.”
He also enjoys interacting with other animals. “Horses seem to really like me too and when I talk to the cattle down the road from our house, they come over and lick my fingers. I like animals. I find them easier to talk to than people.”
Now that Clive is ageing — he will be 14 years old next April — he no longer accompanies Murray on trips abroad.
“When we were on holidays in Spain for three weeks this summer, Murray face-timed his sister Sorcha in the house so that he could check in on Clive every day,” she says.
“Clive opened up doors all over the place for Murray and gave Murray a life outside the house.
“He could go to restaurants and sports events and travel with Clive, and this made him a much happier person. People always stopped to ask about Clive and Murray was encouraged to communicate an awful lot more with the world,” she says, adding that these friendly interactions encouraged Murray to make eye contact with other people and talk about his dog:
“He now has an Instagram account where he shares pictures of Clive every day. He has nearly 900 followers all around the world — Clive has given him great confidence, makes him happy to go places and talk to strangers,” says Fiona of her son who is currently attending a centre for adults with intellectual disability which focuses on horticulture and equine activities.
None of this comes as any surprise to experienced vet Pete Wedderburn, well known to Virgin Media One viewers. Dogs have benefits for people with autism, he explains because they work “on a non-verbal level and also in a non-intellectual way and are completely non-judgemental.”
For example, he points out, if a child behaves badly, a parent might become annoyed - but a dog is never irritated by a child who won’t eat his dinner or take it for a walk:
“Dogs are non-judgemental in a way that humans can only aspire to.
“A child with autism can trust his or her dog completely.
“The dog is very reliable, and I think that it’s a very good thing for anyone to have a constant companion who loves you unconditionally and gives great emotional support in a world which makes you insecure in many ways.”
Assistance dogs, as he also points out, play a number of important roles in the life of a child with autism.
“They can even be trained to sit down and prevent a child from bolting - in fact around 50% of young children with autism can suddenly bolt and a companion dog can stop a child from bolding by simply sitting down — this is very important if you are going out with a child.”
- Autism Assistance Dogs are carefully trained to provide safety and companionship to children with autism.
- They can help prevent a child with autism from suddenly ‘bolting’ because the dog acts as an anchor when it is tethered to the child.
- They can help reduce anxiety and promote independence as well as helping to improve a child’s coping skills.
- Trained assistance dogs for a child with autism are provided through specialised organisations like MyCanineCompanion Autism Services (http://www.mycaninecompanion.ie), Autism Assistance Dogs Ireland (autismassitancedogsireland.ie) or the Irish Guide Dogs (www.guidedogs,ie)
- Demand for these highly trained, and very specialised dogs is very high. As a result, the waiting list for dogs in some organisations like Autism Assistance Dogs Ireland, which currently has about 250 children with autism waiting for trained dogs, is closed, as is the Irish Guide Dogs waiting list for these dogs.