We are a family whose lives changed immeasurably when Bo, the lovable Golden Labrador, came bounding through our front door. The impact he had in the first week still continues 2 years on. Although Isla is capable of a lot more these days, Bo still provides many benefits to our family. She is happy to be tethered to him when we are out but sometimes prefers just to hold a short leash to give her some guidance. She is still comforted by him at night, when over stimulated or anxious. He is her stable friend and companion.
At 5 Isla was a runner. I couldn’t take her anywhere without her taking off. We lost her more than once. Without fitting her with a tracking device the only thing we could offer was a name and contact number on the back of an medic alert bracelet. 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 the railing of a 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 as would put her in danger.
By 7 her anxiety levels about the world had risen which slowed her down a bit but this caused her to become overwhelmed when going out. What used to make her hyperactive now made her constantly say she wanted to go home, covering ears, falling asleep or still become a bit manic and unable to make rational decisions.
Just walking to school was pretty much like walking with a toddler with her touching, exploring and licking everything as we go.
We had never heard of service dogs working with children with autism in New Zealand. Like many people I come across now, these dogs are thought of as working with the blind or the deaf.
The more I researched the more I believed this would help Isla, not only now, but give her more independence as she got older.
Our lives changed when Isla’s dog Bo came to live with us in October 2016.
The transition was seamless. Isla accepted everything about Bo and we have never looked back.
When out Isla is tethered to Bo with a belt around her waist and clipped to his coat. If she tries to pull away he lies down and provides a 35kg anchor. Over time this has taught her she is unable to take off (and she has tried). I can now go out and it is so less exhausting. She cannot go anywhere and I know she is safe and can be independent to a degree without me holding on to her for dear life. It was a liberating feeling for both of us.
Steering her way
Isla hasn’t got very good spatial awareness and doesn’t look where she is going. This 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. With Bo she has to bring her awareness back to what she is doing and if she can’t he will do that for her. Also seeing a child with a big hairy dog in a public setting people tend to look out for her and move aside for the wide load coming through. At roads Isla is learning to stop and look by giving commands to Bo.
Autism is an invisible disability. Isla may look like a normal 10 year old at times 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! Bo alerts others that all is not as it seems. The tantrums haven’t got less embarrassing or less loud but now they bring less negative attention and perhaps more understanding.
A calm companion
Isla can easily be overwhelmed with sensory overload. This results in her often shutting down and falling asleep when out. When feeling like this Bo provides security for her in the form of a warm, comfy pillow for her to lie on. She also finds it calming running her fingers through his hair or touching the bony structures of his legs.
When home Bo is your regular pet. He loves a game of fetching the ball and scratches and cuddles but there have also been other unexpected benefits.
Isla slept all night almost instantly with Bo at the end of her bed. She went to sleep easily and STAYED ASLEEP all night. After 7 years of broken sleep I cannot tell you what a relief this was. At 10, she still wakes up pretty early but still does not stir during the night.
At dinner times Isla would frequently not eat her dinner or run around the table in between bites. We had to resort to feeding Isla while she played on the computer because that was the only way she would get a sufficient amount of food. Now Isla takes pride in getting Bo to lie on his bed while she eats a healthy dinner at the table.
With both Bo and Isla maturing together hopefully by the time Isla is a teenager he can help her be more independent. She will be able to use Bo to provide her with some reassurance when venturing out in the world. By practicing giving him commands, such as crossing the road, will prompt her to stop and look for cars. This stage is still a while away though and they will both need further training before this happens.
Although our experiences with getting a service dog have been amazing for us, there is normally a cost involved and long waiting lists depending on what country you live in.
There are also ongoing costs both financial and physical. A dog of his type needs walks, grooming and discipline training. But most of all he is another family member to think of. He cannot be left alone for long so this is another factor to consider when planning your day.
Overall the positives far outweigh the negative and we are very very lucky to have him.