I AM sitting at my kitchen table, it is March 4, 2019 at 11.55am, I am waiting to hit ‘send’ on an email to the Irish Guide Dogs.
They have just opened up their list for an assistance dog, I knew only 60 applicants would be accepted and, to be honest, I didn’t think we stood a chance.
I hit send bang on noon and thought, what will be, will be...
Since I was knee high, I have known about the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind, recognised their logo, understood what they did and how they were renowned for their work. I always wondered how it all worked, how they took a pup and magically transformed it into a pair of eyes for someone who was visually impaired.
Having been suddenly transported into a world where our lives were everything autism, I now often saw assistance dogs out and about and it did cross my mind if something like that could ever work for our family.
At each momentary lapse, I would dismiss it as ridiculous, as life was so frantic and full on. With the youngest all being so close in age, I was drowning in a sea of nappies, sleepless nights and feeding on demand. A dog was the last thing on my mind as I felt it would be one more thing that would add to my accumulation of stress.
A phone call from Client Services a few weeks later saying we had passed the initial assessment criteria halted me in my tracks and gave me a little hope.
At the time, I was dealing with a lot of stress, I was juggling about 50 balls in the air, I was questioning life and why everything was so bloody hard. I think I felt as if everything was a battle to that point, so I assumed that it would be a huge challenge to grasp anything worth having.
We were invited to an Open Day in the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind centre in May, I sat there and listened to all the speakers, walked around the premises, and met other parents who were hoping, like me, that this could be the answer to our prayers. I heard how hard it was, how huge a responsibility it would be, how it isn’t for everyone and sometimes it just does not work out.
I heard how the dog’s weight has to be kept under control and thought of my three-year-old who is like Hansel and Gretel throughout the house. I was weighing up the pros and the cons, as my primary concern was how would the dog cope in a house where more than one child was diagnosed?
I had visions of the dog having whiplash when it all came to a head, on a day where four of my children were having a meltdown and the noise could be heard in a neighbouring county. How would the dog identify who needed the help? Would it be too much to ask of them to take on? I thought ‘Christ, it would want to be some dog, in fairness’.
One parent who had had an assessment dog for well over ten years, spoke about how some parents don’t like to take on an assistance dog as it advertises that their child is autistic. I remember how this was the only part of the day that made me really sad.
A few weeks later, we were called for a family assessment, where they needed to meet everyone who lived in the home. It was a day I was dreading, to be honest. There is no preparation for this scenario, you can’t sit your children down and explain what is happening, tell them that they need to be on their best behaviour, you just have to hope and pray that you all make it out alive, including those you are meeting.
First of all, it took us two cars just to get there, that was a great start as we very rarely left the house as a family unit. Bodhi saw his younger siblings in the buggy and he kicked off, he wanted to travel the WHOLE 16 steps from the car to the entrance by mode of Out N About Double Buggy. So I thought, pick your battles, and carried the one-year-old to keep the peace, aiming to try and have it all go as smoothly as possible for what I deemed the important part.
Upon entering the building, we were separated, as my husband Ian now had to take the buggy in the lift and I had to take the stairs with the rest of the Brady Bunch. At this point, Bodhi is pointing at us, anxiety levels rising as we go the opposite way and his pitch is beginning to go up an octave or 15.
We arrived at the room before they did, which was only ideal as Bodhi’s fixation for that month was being first to enter a room. The fact Ian had christened him Kim Jong Un that week wasn’t too far from my mind.
Around this time, the lovely lady doing the assessment, Hannah, mentioned that there were two women from Vancouver who were going to sit in on it, to see how the process worked. I thought, and inadvertently said out loud: ‘Sweet Jesus, what a family to pick’, much to their amusement.
A beautiful black lab, similar in size to Scooby Doo, bounded over excitedly to the buggy as it entered the room, Bodhi now resembled a cat, all paws up, and clung onto the side of the door, that would be the door into the room.
We prised him and Indie from the buggy, put the baby back in and sat down on any available furniture. Both the decibels and temperature in the room were now rising, Hannah was asking questions and Ian was shouting across the room at me ‘What? I can’t make out what you’re saying’ in hand movements.
Benny Hill theme music was now playing in my head as Bodhi was up on my back, Indie had clambered to a window sill over my left shoulder and was cannon balling straight into a black dog bed, which was full of coloured plastic balls which were now being sprayed like confetti across the room.
The three older girls were sitting on the couch across from me, like Stepford Wives, eyes wide open and legs crossed. Ian and I grabed any child that came within a two foot radius. The dog was now trying to catch the plastic balls that were being fired in all directions, as Indie was trying to straddle him as she thought he was a horse.
I heard Hannah ask “Shall we do the attachment walk?” and thought “Sweet divine Jesus”, but in an instant Bodhi was attached and walking alongside as calm as could be. We left the centre and walked to a nearby estate; it was like a sponsored walk, there were eight of us, the instructor, the dog and the two from Vancouver.
The only negative was Bodhi got very upset at not being able to remove his jacket, something I didn’t think of. But he can’t be shown how to open the jacket as this removes the whole safety element. He is firing the jacket at Hannah, I am mortified, apologising, she is telling me it is fine.
We got them all back into the two cars and the sweat was pouring off me. I was thinking, that is it, chances are gone now, they are going to lock the gates as soon as we leave.
To my surprise, we passed this assessment and they were happy to see it all: the chaos, the meltdowns, the noise. This helps them decipher what dog they have that would be able for this. Had they seen a child on his ipad in the corner quiet and tuned out, or children having a good day, which we all know is not the case the rest of the time, then they could match us with the wrong dog altogether, which would be a disaster.
A few weeks later we get a call to say they want to do a house check and visit with another dog, so Bodhi could have an attachment walk near our house.
This all went smoothly, we had an idea of what to expect this time, so we could prepare him and he was excited to see Hannah. She pointed out one or two things we would have to change within the garden and home to secure the property.
The dog she brought that day I felt wasn’t matched to Bodhi, I just thought he was a bit too flighty for us and as we passed the beach he was instinctively pulled towards wanting to go onto it. This wouldn’t do, as water is a huge safety concern for us, but to be fair this dog was probably brought to the beach for his free run and associated this with having fun. It wasn’t the dog’s fault, it was just the norm for a lot of puppy raisers to take their dogs there, but if he wanted to pull towards the beach each time we passed, then he wouldn’t be paying attention to Bodhi.
A few weeks later, I got a call to say they had found a match for Bodhi, I almost cried.
First of all, I anticipated not to get a call for a year at least as I felt there were so many children that it would be some dog to take it all on.
Hannah wouldn’t give any details over the phone as it would be unfair in case it didn’t work out. So we waited for the day she called.
Up to this point Ian was a bit apprehensive about the whole assistance dog and I was the one pushing it, something which normally happens, apparently. The minute Ebbi came in the door, Ian’s face softened and we both knew, this was her. She ran around the garden with Bodhi and was playful but listened to what Hannah asked of her. She was super affectionate and I think the deal breaker for me was doing the attachment walk, she didn’t bat an eyelid at passing the beach or when another dog came barrelling down his drive barking, she didn’t even acknowledge him and kept going.
The romantic in me loved the fact that when she was going home, she wrapped herself around Bodhi’s legs like she was hugging him and hesitated getting back into the van. I would find out weeks later that she hates travelling in transport but at the time I preferred to think she didn’t want to leave us.
The final piece to this journey was a medical for me to say I was fit for training and had the green light to go and stay for five nights in the Irish Guide Dog Centre, along with four other mothers, and the assistance dogs that their children had been matched with, for a week’s training with Hannah.
I have just completed that week and can only describe it as being one of the best I have had in a long time.
Hannah seemed to have matched the dogs to all of the parents’ personalities yet our children’s needs. Within 24 hours of having Ebbi, I felt like she was the best therapy and something I didn’t even realise I needed.
The set up in there is amazing and the staff are incredible, from those in housekeeping looking after us, to the kennel staff minding the dogs, Client Services, Fundraising and PR staff, to those you would meet in the hall as they would recount a tale of how they knew your dog. It was all just top notch.
I thought, like any business, there would be a tiered formation and the managers would be far removed from the rest of the staff. It couldn’t have been further from the truth, it still blows my mind how they remember each dog’s history, their sibling’s names and so on, when you can imagine how many litters they work with throughout the years.
I think I sat there open- mouthed at one lady who told me Ebbi had 12 siblings as she recalled them all by memory.
A graduation lunch was put on for us on our second last day, where the general manager made a speech and then pulled up a chair as he sat and had a bowl of apple crumble with us, chatting.
We asked if they would be opening the list again for more families and were told that they would be next year and were halfway through the list from this year. We were treated like celebrity guests and, let me tell you, you aren’t long forming friendships over discussions about your dog’s bowel movements.
We cried listening to people speak at a volunteer open night about their experiences and we laughed until our faces hurt as it was an opportunity for just to just be us for the week. We “got” one another and our situations as we lived it, there was no need for explanations or excuses.
We had fascinating aspects of training like dog body language, vet and grooming talks, information about the amazing families who had raised our dogs and were a huge part of the journey in getting them to where they were today.
We listened as we heard how it costs over €50,000 to train each dog and €5.4 million to run the Irish Guide Dogs this year alone.
We were a part of three other visually impaired guests’ journeys as they shared two days with us, and we waited with baited breath to find out if they would be in receipt of a guide dog. We are now friends on Facebook.
I would later find out that the day of our house check, when both trainers got back into the van, they both turned to each other and said “Ebbi” and had Hannah not had Ebbi in her group at that time, we would have been waiting at least a year, as I anticipated.
I parted ways with my friends from Cork, Kerry and Mayo on the Friday, which was very emotional, not only for us but to take the dogs away and for them to be alone too.
I came home with Ebbi and waited for Bodhi to get home from school. I watched as my son ran in the door so fast he left his bag behind him, saying “Ebbi, how are you today?” as he exclaimed “we can be together” and “we are friends”. He then rushed with his bucket of plastic letters to spell her name out across the same kitchen table.
Ian noted that our family was now complete, as the dog just fit. That evening, as Bodhi lay down on the floor next to her, I had this wave of realisation of what we had actually done and could do.
The fact I could raise money to help give back so another family made perfect sense. It is of paramount importance to me that I share our story so people are aware and can see what a difference the Irish Guide Dogs make, not only for the visually impaired, but for families living with autism.
We have had two after-care appointments where Hannah has come to the house to do attachment walks with Bodhi, and gone to places where we would like to go but maybe have held back on.
We are due to have two more appointments, one which will include a vet visit, and we will have regular follow up meetings to see how it is all going. In the midst of this, we figured out what Ebbi’s apprehension was with travelling in a car. It was being alone.
The minute Bodhi got into the car, she angled at sitting beside him and, just like that, she hasn’t hesitated in getting in since. Hannah noted that Ebbi seems to need Bodhi just as much as she needs him.
Ebbi will be the one who will enable us to actually leave our house, maybe go to a restaurant for the first time together, or even the cinema, do an actual food shop or — wait for it — go on a holiday some day. And for this alone, I would climb Kilimanjaro ten times over.
You can follow our story and that of Ebbi and Bodhi over the next 12 months in The Echo, as I write about why I am climbing Kilimanjaro to raise funds for the Irish Guide Dogs, Sonas Junior Special School and Shine Centre for Autism, in a monthly column.
If you would like to make a donation, see https://www.ifundraise.ie/4888_20kforkilimanj.html
or email 20KforKilimanJ@gmail.com to find out how your workplace or school can get involved.
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