A confrontation by a member of the public with a mother bringing an Assistance Dog into a Cavan supermarket has raised the importance of public awareness in the training of service dogs, writes Thomas Lyons. Most people appreciate the value of guide dogs for the blind but other roles for canine companions are not as commonly known.
Assistance dogs are life changing for adults and children with physical or psychological difficulties. The dogs are trained for a variety of tasks from providing stability when walking, to getting the washing or just giving a feeling of comfort. The canines contribute to greater independence, confidence and companionship.
Norma McVitty, who is involved with the Cavan Autism Parents Support (CAPS) group, is in the process of preparing ‘Nemo’ for her son Oisín. Nemo is one of six assistance dogs in Cavan.
He is a 15-month-old Golden Doodle supplied by the Cork charity ‘My Canine Companion’, a group that trains dogs to assist children and young adults living with autism.
The service dogs are fully trained to the standard of Assistance Dogs Europe (ADEu) and each one costs just over €10,000 to train. The period of training covers the two years from birth right through to graduation as a service dog.
The Ballyconnell mother says that, even though Nemo has yet to complete his final phase of training, he has already made a huge difference to her son's life: “The dogs help families by lowering the child's anxiety. They help kids with autism do day-to-day activities that they may otherwise be too anxious to engage in. The animal is a calming influence in their lives.
“We got him when he was eight weeks old. There was a bit of chaos when he first came to the house!” Norma told the Celt.
Oisín was diagnosed with autism a week before his third birthday, the early indicator being that he was not verbal. In the five years since, he has progressed slowly.
Nemo's arrival has had a positive impact on family life: “Before Nemo we could not go out as a family because it is too overwhelming for Oisín. He finds it very difficult to be in public places. Even in a supermarket, the lights and the noise can be very overwhelming for him. I brought him shopping last week for the first time in a long time. It was a great experience and it was only possible because Nemo was there. When Oisín got anxious he would rub Nemo's coat.”
The canine companion has become a part of the family and is loved as much by Oisín's two siblings. The family are involved in the training routine: “We bring him out and about. That is part of his training. It's to socialise him. We have to bring him everywhere we bring our son. We bring him to restaurants to get him used to every environment, so he is not distracted by the noise and sound, so that he is there for our son,” Norma explained.
The family's Golden Doodle is now a part of their everyday life: “Oisín can find it difficult to interact with his own siblings. Nemo has helped lower his anxiety. We didn't go to the turning on of the Christmas lights for the last few years because it was too much for Oisín but we brought Nemo this year and it was the first time we got to stay. We even got to see Santa. That was all because he had Nemo beside him. He just pets Nemo to reassure himself.”
Life can be hard for children on the ASD spectrum. Every day things are difficult. For Oisín his companion has made things a little easier: “My son has only starting to developed his speech. He is not able to tell you what he wants a lot of the time. Nemo had a puppy break last year for training in Cork. Although Oisín can't talk, he tries his best to communicate through his iPad. He kept playing a scene from Finding Nemo. He played the clip saying: “Where is Nemo?” over and over again. That is difficult but we know that, in the long run, it will be worth it,” Norma said.
In the coming months Nemo has to return to Cork for his final education. Over 16 weeks, he will receive intensive training to augment what he has been learning in Cavan for the last 13 months. The ‘My Canine Companion’ dogs all enjoy the same legal access rights as guide dogs for the blind. The assistance and support they provide is as valuable as that offered by any service dog.
Norma is in contact with the other families who are lucky enough to have assistance dogs: “My Canine Companion have a training page where they put up advice and help for people who have assistance dogs. We have got to know each other through that and we set up our own private group. We meet in coffee shops, we walk around town just training the dogs together. Sometimes you get the stares. One person once said ‘don't let the dog do anything in the shop or we will get in trouble’ but most of the time there is no trouble.”
However an incident last week prompted Norma to ask the Celt to raise public awareness about the importance of service dogs: “A lady who had only recently been given her service dog was confronted as she brought it into a supermarket. A member of the public confronted her saying ‘you should not be here, that dog is not allowed into the shop!’ She was very shaken by the experience. He said that she wasn't blind and she didn't need the dog. She tried to explain that it was for her son. The difficulty is that, when the dog is in training, the child is not always with them because the dog has to be trained before they are qualified. My Canine Companion do the final training session before 'attaching' the dog to the child.”
Norma explained the damage that an encounter like that can do. “That experience was hard. If the child had been with the mother in that situation it could have an awful effect. Some kids with autism could develop a complex about the dog being with them as a result of an incident like that. The benefit of the dog would not be there any more. It has happened in other parts of the country,” she told the Celt.
The McVittys are fortunate to be part of the My Canine Companion puppy training programme currently in place. This programme is the first of its kind in Ireland and sees the charity placing at least 20 Service Dogs a year with recipient families.