How will an Assistance Dog help Isla ???

As you would have no doubt seen my main focus this year has been fundraising for Assistance Dogs NZ Trust.

I have had a lot of people ask me how an Assistance Dog will help Isla specifically so seemed timely for this to be the subject of my next post.

I wish I’d known about these amazing dogs earlier.  At 5 Isla was a runner.  I couldn’t take her anywhere without her taking off.  I lost her at the shopping mall (well Gareth did…and I almost did on another occasion).  It was almost impossible to stop and talk to anyone without having one eye on the person and one eye on Isla.  If in a safe environment I’d see how far she’d get before she’d look back for me…she never looked back.

She ran across a carpark, she climbed on top of a railing at second story level, she would jump into lifts having no idea of the consequences of arriving at a different floor and not knowing where she was…she was fast and didn’t walk anywhere…just ran.  It was stressful to take her out and to be honest not safe for her.  After realising how unpredictable she was, she was firmly hand held (or wrist held) everywhere or we just didn’t go out anywhere that would put her in danger.

At 7 her anxiety levels about the world have risen which has slowed her down a bit but this has caused her to now become overwhelmed when going out.  What used to make her hyperactive now makes her constantly say she wants to go home if out, covering ears, falling asleep or still become a bit manic and unable to make rational decisions.  I know sometimes when I’m out in a busy, noisy situation I can feel like it’s a bit much and can’t think straight so I can imagine this is only the same but intensified.

So she can either be extremely anxious and so afraid that she physically shakes in a given situation or to the other extreme be very hyperactive. In other words sensory seeking, “busy”, finding it hard to stay in the same place, moving from one thing to the next, especially if she is comfortable in an environment and doesn’t have a device to ground her.

Just walking to school is pretty much like walking with a toddler with her touching and exploring everything as we go.  Have tried the scooter as she is amazingly able on it and it gets us to places quicker.  However she doesn’t look where she is going or know when to slow down and although I mostly hold her by her top, she pushes me off and this is just an accident waiting to happen.

So how will a dog help Isla?

She will be tethered to the dog with a belt around her waist and clipped to the dog’s coat.  If she tries to pull away the dog will sit which will teach her that she has to walk calmly in one direction.

Isla hasn’t got very good spatial awareness and doesn’t look where she is going which gets worse when there is a lot going on around her.  She will walk straight into people, over people and through groups of people sitting down.  The dog will hopefully steer her in the right direction or at least alert people to look out for her.

I have seen already on her assessment walks that she becomes calmer receiving some sensory input through the handle with the movement of the dog walking.  With Isla she has to repeat something many times to learn a skill.  Just having the dog stop at the road and with the command left and right will make her become aware of walking with purpose, help her learn to cross a road safely and think about what she is doing.  This is not something that comes to her automatically.

When we are out she will be tethered to her calm companion. It will ground her and stop her from being “all over the place” which she normally is without constant supervision.  When she is anxious and overly stimulated hopefully she will be able to learn to use the dog to calm herself and it will be reassuring for her.  This will enable us to expose her and desensitise her to more situations she finds stressful.

At home the dog will be mostly off duty but still training has to be rigid.  I am hoping having the dog in her room will help make her sleep better and stay asleep or at least stay quieter for longer and settle earlier.  With the dog it will encourage us to venture out more and do more physical activity which might help with longer sleep.  Fingers crossed anyway!!

Autism is an invisible disability.  Isla may look like a normal 7 year old but her way of thinking is not which leads to frequent tantrums and unusual reactions to events which may look like she is a spoilt little girl.  I’ve seen the looks!   The dog becomes a positive point of interaction with strangers.  The focus shifts from a child with strange behaviour to a beautiful dog obviously working to help a child with different abilities.

Isla knows about the dog and seems excited.  She tells me the purpose of the dog is to keep her safe.  However I’m sure there will be some struggles initially with her being restrained.  She has already worked out how to unhook the clips securing her to the dog so a more complicated mechanism will be needed !  This is what you work through with the trainer who spends a lot of time with the family to make sure it all runs smoothly.  I am sure once it becomes routine she will like the predictability of it and it will become reassuring for her.

As she grows older ADNZ will work with us “up skilling” training as we go along to meet her development needs which explains the high cost as they work with us throughout the dog’s working life.

Eventually Isla will learn to take the responsibility for the handling of the dog herself.  With having her calm, constant companion with her she will hopefully find comfort and be able to regulate herself better with just having the dog by her side and she won’t need to be anchored in the same way.

We are very excited about getting our Assistance Dog and will keep everyone informed with our progress through this blog and on the SimplyIsla page on Facebook.

May I take this opportunity to thank everyone so much for their support. It is truly humbling and has just been amazingly heartwarming for our family so far.

For more info go to


Published by Sara Stythe

Hi my name is Sara Stythe and I am a mum of 3 beautiful girls. This is a place to share knowledge, resources and information I have learnt along the way on this unexpected journey with our unique youngest daughter. Isla is missing a tiny bit of her 2nd chromosome (2q23.1 Microdeletion Syndrome, recently known as MAND) causing autism, epilepsy and development delay. If you would like to receive my new blog posts by email you can subscribe. Thank you

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