Protecting from danger and providing companionship — it’s all in a day’s work for Layla’s autism assistance dog, writes Mary Hogan

LAYLA’S VBF is strikingly handsome and exceptionally perceptive. Google is a golden doodle, assistance dog to Layla, who has autism.

Mum Edel describes the “magic” Google brought to Layla, 7, husband Stephen, Karl 19 and Chloe 13.

“The benefit to Layla of Google’s devotion was gradual,” says Edel. “We got Google at 16 weeks from My Canine Companion in Cork. We socialised him for a year, getting to know and love each other. Socialisation involved bringing Google to supermarkets, on public transport, to restaurants and public places”.

Edel describes My Canine Companion: “It is a national charity founded in 2011 by Cliona O’Rourke. Everyone with autism needs a dog like Google. These highly-skilled dogs cost on average €8,000. Finance is imperative; there is zero Government or other funding.”

“Google is extraordinarily intuitive,” enthuses Edel. “He knows what Layla is thinking or about to do almost before she thinks it or he sees any action.

“See the wall at the gate? We built that to protect Layla. Once, she and Google were barely a minute outside. Google dashed inside, out again, back in... I was puzzled. Glancing out after 10 minutes, I was horrified! Layla had climbed the pillar onto the wall. If Google hadn’t alerted me...” Edel’s voice fades away.

Google’s dedication is obvious. Layla doesn’t verbalise her undeniable love. “If Google is not instantly visible, she screams,” explains Edel. “His effect on us is remarkable. A child with autism is highly stressful on the family. Google is soothing and calming.”

Edel describes the innovative approach of Cliona and husband Niall as inspired. “My Canine Companion’s pioneering concept of the assistance dog living with the recipient’s family before training is dramatically different to, say, Guide Dogs for the Visually Impaired. Those are socialised by dog-lovers. We had the pleasure of knowing and loving Google in advance.”

 Edel, seven-year-old Layla and her retriever doodle assistance dog named Google. Pictures: Nick Bradshaw
Edel, seven-year-old Layla and her retriever doodle assistance dog named Google. Pictures: Nick Bradshaw

EDEL’S TRAINING IN CORK WITH GOOGLE

At 18 months, Google’s extensive training commenced. “I joined him towards the end,” says Edel.

They received group training with three parents and their dogs. The sounds, sights and basic commands were familiar to Google because of his socialisation with Edel.

“All commands are essential, the most significant being ‘Leave it!’ because Google learned to ignore all distractions: edible treats on the sidewalk, dogs approaching, admiration... any diversion from assisting Layla.

“We visited hotels, restaurants, public places, climbed stairs, travelled on buses and a train trip. Throughout, the dogs socialised with each other.”

The training was gruelling.

“It was nerve-wracking, exhausting, exciting,” says Eded. “Most of all, it was thrilling.”

Google took up his royal residence on December 18, 2014. “The best Christmas present imaginable.”

Three sessions of attachment training followed four weeks later. Google, in front, is attached to Layla’s belt by a short lead and Edel holds the longer lead, which is attached to Layla. Both walk on Edel’s left.

“Google is treated royally — he’s like another child,” smiles Edel. “He sleeps in Layla’s room but we welcome him with open arms in all our bedrooms.”

IN-SERVICE TRAINING:

Although not compulsory, Edel enjoys monthly in-service training at Liffey Valley.

“Ten minutes are spent supervising basic commands. Google and I are monitored walking slowly, quickly, beside, behind or in front for 20 minutes.”

Together with the other handlers, these sessions reinforce and refresh the excellent training.

They automatically involve ‘pack’ training, both with the other assistance dogs and curious canine on-lookers.

Then, the cuppa, all dogs at ease. “I love going, both for training and comparing notes. Liffey Valley staff are brilliant.”

Edel doesn’t allow visitors to pet Google. “He adores attention. Sitting beside Layla at family meals, Google is working and shouldn’t seek notice or beg for treats.”

Everyone gets “down and dirty” with Google before leaving. Every dog, he rolls over, paws waving, enjoying his tummy and ears being tickled.

Google’s presence indicates that Layla may behave differently in crowds or around excessive noise. Embarrassment and explanations are now non-issues. “Google is a game-changer,” says Edel.

Layla’s sense of touch developed enormously. “She puts her arms around his neck, holds him by the ears and constantly lies with her feet on his back. He laps up her love and attention.

“Layla helps me bathe Google, handing me the shampoo and brushes. She loves his freshly fragrant coat. Not so much the wet doggy coat, but then, who does?” laughs Edel.

When working, Google excitedly dons his working uniform and steps nobly out.

It’s surprising these three amigos get anywhere, with the admiration, questions and enthusiasm showered upon them from everyone.

“Work, work, work... Google adores working and is constantly vigilant. He stops whenever he perceives danger.”

Edel praises the kindness encountered. “Stephen ordered a crane to hoist a hot tub onto the patio. The guy discovered Layla’s special needs and refused the fee of €1,000.”

The family had had no holiday in five years.

“We’ve been to Lanzarotte twice — last Christmas and since.” exclaims Edel. “Aer Lingus was marvellous. Google was the cover boy on the in-flight magazine.”

Niall, co-founder of My Canine Companion, explains that golden doodles and labradoodles are chosen for their temperament, robustness and stamina.

Each child with autism definitely deserves their Google.


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