TRACEY Doyle’s daughter, Mia, is nine and was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder from a young age.
Tracey knew the difficulties that this presents as her eldest son too has the condition. Sadly, for her son, who is now a young adult, My Canine Companion (MCC) was not available when he was younger.
Through contact with special schools and meeting other parents whose children have autism, Tracey was aware of MCC, and put Mia’s name on the waiting list in the hopes of receiving service dog.
At MCC, they match a child with a puppy of approximately three months old. In this way, the dog and child grow and learn together.
Cliona O’Rourke, founder of MCC, and an experienced dog trainer with 20 years under her belt, assessed Mia and her family. She then matched Mia with Yoko.
Mia loves music and Yoko, when being puppy walked, was completely transfixed with a busker in Cork. Yoko too loves music.
Mia is also sensory and loves fondling the Yoko’s hair. For this reason, Yoko never gets a too close cropped hair-cut.
Tracey says she cannot describe the difference having Yoko, has made to their lives.
Until receiving Yoko, Mia did not walk, and had to be taken everywhere in a buggy. Now she walks independently, attached to the safety harness, connected to Yoko on one side and her mother on the other.
All the family love music and play with the Butter Band. Practice is on Saturdays at Firkin Crane. Now all the family can play music and attend practice as Mia and Yoko lie on the floor enjoying the music. The band members all love Yoko and love to have photos taken with the dog.
Before this, Tracey says, they were a family divided. One parent would stay home with Mia while the other took the other three children on outings. Now they enjoy many outings as a family.
Tracey says that, prior to Yoko, Mia never really left the house apart from going to school, but, she says, from the very first moment the dog came into the house everyone benefitted.
When Yoko is between 18 months and two years old, she will need to go for intensive training before ‘graduating’ as a fully trained service dog. Meanwhile, there are monthly socialisation events, organised by MCC, where dogs and their owners meet and help the dog become familiar with all types of situations. For example, the dogs and their ‘charges’ and the children’s parents have had day trips to Spike Island and Doneraile Castle.
Nora O’Mahony has four children. Her eldest son is autistic and her youngest daughter, Bethany, aged seven, is on the Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Bethany has had Ghia, a fully trained dog, for almost two years now. The huge concern at the time of getting a dog was for Bethany’s safety. But the dog made a huge difference in all areas of both Bethany and the family’s life.
There’s no such things as ‘couple nights out’ together, Nora says, and often even friends fail to understand, that casually dropping by for a chat and a coffee is out of the question.
Everything has to be planned, and the child prepared for every event before it happens. Friends have fallen away because of this, Nora observes. Instead, the MCC family has become their friends.
This year, both Nora and Tracey are looking forward to family holidays in France made easier with the assistance dogs, who have pet passports and everything necessary to travel abroad.
She is so impressed by the difference the dog has made in their lives, that Nora volunteered to ‘puppy walk’ Kevin, before he was ready to go into training to assist another family.
When she saw the rewards, for the dog and the family, she felt called to become a dog trainer herself. Currently, she is an apprentice trainer and when we met she was in charge of Tilly who was ‘in for a refresher course’. To become a fully qualified trainer, Nora must ‘qualify’ at least four or five dogs.
Every family is different, says Nora, and each dog is trained to cope with any situation.
Ghia will often sense when Bethany is going to have ‘a melt-down’. Ghia will alert Nora by pacing or other restless behaviour. Bethany herself recognises when she needs support and will seek Ghia out. The dog will then rest against the child, the pressure is comforting, and Bethany will embrace Ghia for as long as she needs to calm herself.
“And, like anyone who works hard, Ghia will then need a break and will have a long, deep sleep.
Ghia sleeps outside Bethany’s bedroom at night. This way Bethany feels safe, and the family know that she is.
Service dogs help children make friends, which children with autism often find difficult to do. They can also help children become verbal. In some cases, within two or three weeks of a dog coming to a home, a previously non-verbal child will speak in full sentences.
The motto of MCC is bringing families together, both Nora and Tracey, and dogs Yoko and Tilly, concur with this. They both stress the amount of hard work that goes into training a dog — the cost is approximately €10,000 for the working life of the dog. Training and support are ongoing. As Tracey says, you know you can phone someone if there’s even the slightest problem.
MCC were given a boost with a donation of €300,000 from Dublin Airport Authority.
CEO of MCC, Niall Ruddy, says: “It is a huge boost to MCC who do not receive any government funding.
“MCC had a record year in 2017 having provided 47 qualified service dogs to children and young adults with autism throughout the country.
“This was 2/3 of the total service dogs for autism in 2017 with most of the remainder provided by Irish Guide Dogs for the Blinds assistance dog programme.
“MCC was founded in 2011 and have already given the gift of a service dog to more than 200 families in Ireland. It was founded, by Cork woman, Cliona O’Rourke who was also the first person in Europe to train a dog, specifically, to work with a child with autism, in 2004”.
Currently, there are 400 people, all over Ireland, on the waiting list for My Canine Companion dogs.
The charity welcome enquiries from anybody wishing to help, either through puppy walking, boarding a dog, making a donation, or helping out in their charity shop in Blackpool.
For more, find them at My Canine Companion on Facebook.