Monday, April 8, 2013

Assistance Dogs, Magic and Autism

Last November I got a phone call that I was anticipating for a few years.
It was the lovely Aileen from Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind telling me that  an assistance dog had been matched to our family, and that I would need to go to Cork for a week for training in all things canine.
It was like winning the lottery, losing a stone and finding the cure for cellulite all in one go.
My over-exuberance may have been notable, because Aileen had to practically fan me down and feed me sedatives over the phone.
She explained to me that having an assistance dog is not magic and that the success of the partnership depends on hard work and willing participation.
Our new dog would not lope home to tell me that Little Bobby had fallen down a well and was surviving on locusts and gogi berries.
She would not cure my son's Autism.
Even worse, she would not iron, make dinners or wash the floor.
I mean, just what kind of assistance dog was she???

Aileen told me that her name is Vikas (pronounced Veekas) and she is an almost 2 year old lab/retriever cross.
In Cork I would learn all the tricks necessary to enable my family to venture out of the confines of our barracks, and to do stuff that other *cough* normal families do without thinking.
Stuff like going to McDonalds, feeding the ducks and (best of all) wearing heels because Vikas removes the requirement to sprint after a bolting (occasionally semi-nude) child.
Stuff  like not needing to play chicken with traffic (you should try it, it's fun) because your child is safely attached to a well-behaved pooch.
Stuff like not needing to have the local Gardi, and our friends and neighbours, on speed dial, to help us when Finian teleports at warp speed through the Monaghan countryside.  We know he teleports because no-one  ever sees him vanish.

So I learned how to do all these things and returned home to Monaghan with high hopes.

Finian's first attachment to Vikas with Aileen on the Black Island bridge

Vikas became part of our family in no time, and over the next few months we got to know each other and overcame a few minor teething problems with Aileen's ongoing support.
We enjoyed pretending we were a normal family (who woulda thunk it?) and basked in the sympathy of people who  said things like "Jaysis is the poor child blind now as well?".

But the best was yet to come.

Himself walking the dawg 

Vikas is a diva.
She needs love and adoration like the desert needs the rain.
 If adequate homage is not paid to her, then she will root it out like a heat-seeking missile of love.
Finian, being the shortest in our house, is invariably the one she will stick her face into and unrelentingly beg, wheedle and lick into submission.
She literally shoves her face into his (I'm paraphrasing here OK, just go with it) and says playwithmeplaywithmelovemetalktomeadoreandidoliseme .
In the last month we noticed that Finian's eye contact has switched on like a big lamp in his social darkness.
And where there's eye contact, there's the ability to observe facial expressions, to communicate and to develop empathy.
And all because Vikas will not be ignored.
He's processing more of what we say to him and has for the first time ever, told me he felt sick, where he felt sick and that he wanted a band-aid for his sore throat.
The enormity of an autistic child having the ability to communicate this is, well, enormous.

Finian attends occupational therapy every week as well.
My feeling is that between OT and the untested but promising method of shoving a dog in his face, that he has taken giant strides where no man has, erm, stridden before
(some fella that hoofed around on the moon said that).

Who needs reflexology when you have an assistance dog?

No dog breath issues here

"That fella in North Korea is mad.  We should do something about him"

 So Aileen told me that having an assistance dog is not magic, but part of me wonders if they didn't hide the wands and spell-books before I got there.  
Lots of us special needs parents have become hardened by the bad stuff that comes with Autism (the grief, the financial strain, the social exclusion, the hideous obligation to watch Bob the Builder etc etc).
Your child being diagnosed with a life-long disability is enough to make the best of us collapse, but it is the unparalleled ability of the "services" to make life even harder for us that undoes us completely.  The irony of those who are paid to help us actually making life worse still shocks me (even after 6 years), but any parent who has to decide between buying heating oil or occupational therapy for their child will know what I mean.
So when I spent a week with the Irish Guide Dogs, as well as opening a whole new world to my family, they gave back to me something that no money on this earth can buy.
Lock up your cliches, coz none of them are safe, but they gave me hope.
And a diva called Vikas.

Just where is my silk pillow and tiara?


  1. Wow!!! Just brilliant and what I needed to hear. Have our name on a list only recently but seeing such a positive post about assistance dogs is a real help as I'm sometimes not sure but gut instinct is telling me to go for it for my sons future.

    1. That's great popsie. I hope you don't have to wait too long. It's been nothing but positive for us, although I've learned more about dog poo than I ever thought necessary XXX

  2. We're just starting out on our journey with our 'dawg'. He fits in nicely to our family and like Vikas, seeks attention, all the time. :) we're looking forward to getting the attachment just right. A few teething problems at the moment but we'll get there... Another great blog Jean... :) xxx

    1. Thanks Elaine. It takes a while to get there, but every time you go out you gain a little more confidence. I suppose we also have to remember that no matter how well trained our dogs are, they're still little more than pups...cheeky pups at times...XXX Can't wait to meet Chip

  3. A dog called hope, reading this has made me go all goose bumpy, it's just fab :D

  4. This is amazing! So happy for you guys. (Wish Luca wasn't afraid of dogs). :)

    1. It's great when things go right, isn't it? XXX

  5. I am SO excited and delighted for you, Your boy and your whole family. This is wonderful news!

    I was once told that a pet (particularly a dog)encourages the child to think of another being apart from themselves, to perhaps even care for it. It seems you're getting that in bucket loads there!

    xx Jazzy

    1. Hi jazzy, yep, there's buckets flying all over the place XXX

  6. How wonderful, Jean, for you and your son.

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  8. Jean, Beautifully written piece - thanks for giving us a glimpse into your life. As a first time puppywalker it is lovely to read about how our little "puppy" will hopefully turn into a "Vikas". Our 8 month old puppy already has the "diva" part down! Best wishes to you, your family and Vikas.

    1. Ah thanks for that Deirdre! I'm eternally grateful to our puppy-walker. It takes a huge amount of time and energy, but the difference you are making cannot be overestimated. XXX

  9. Hey Jean, haven't checked for a while and missed 2 new blogs! Just as well - this last one is so happy, hopefully many more like it will follow!
    M is afraid of dogs. Until, that is, last week when he met his grandparents' new puppy - and it was love from first sight. He followed the pup around for hours "to make sure she is safe". Now we are considering getting him a pet (something demanding less work though).

  10. Hey Jean ... I haven't checked your blog for a while, but so great to read about this!!! Hope it's going well :)

  11. Just found your blog Jean, This is the first post i have read and it is the first time i have heard about guide dogs. Thank you, thank you, i have a bolter who loves dogs! Time to start researching dog training!!Brendan