THE waiting list to receive a dog from Autism Assistance Dogs Ireland is five years long.
The national charity, based in Mallow, provides highly trained assistance dogs to children with autism and their families.
They are always seeking volunteers and people to foster the pups.
Nuala Geraghty, who has run the charity since it opened in 2010, explained: “We are always looking for people to puppy foster. These people take in the pups and train them to over a year old.
“The main part of the early training is simply socialising the pup. The more the dog sees and does in the first 12 months of their life, the more chance they have of becoming an assistance dog.
“The puppy wears a little jacket and they have access to go into public places like pubs, restaurants and cinemas. They become a part of the fosterer’s life and go everywhere with them.
“After the first year or so I take them on for a few months to get them to the assistance dogs international standards.
“About 50% of the the dogs trained make it. If they don’t they will usually be a companion dog instead. Companion dogs don’t have access to the public places the assistance dog would.the dogs trained make it. If they don’t they will usually be a companion dog instead. Companion dogs don’t have access to the public places the assistance dog would.
“It is very individual how the dogs help each family but many children with autism have no sense of danger so they might run across the road or run to something they like. This means the parents constantly have to hold on to their hand so instead the child wears a belt and that is linked on to the dog to keep them safe. The parent would then hold on to the dogs lead and give them the command.to something they like. This means the parents constantly have to hold on to their hand so instead the child wears a belt and that is linked on to the dog to keep them safe. The parent would then hold on to the dogs lead and give them the command.
“The dog is a positive thing coming into the house and helps to ease the child’s anxiety.”
According to Autism Ireland, the numbers of people seeking help is on the rise.
The number of young children coming into the system each year is significantly greater than in the past, the autism community in Ireland is growing and ageing.
Noreen Healy of Ballingeary has been puppy fostering since November 2010.
“It is the most rewarding thing I have ever done in my life,” she said. “The satisfaction you get out of it is unreal, although it can be heartbreaking to say goodbye at the end. I always have another pup lined up to take on before I give away the puppy I have. Now I am on my seventh. He will go back in three months and they have another picked out for me already!”
Noreen lives with her husband Joe on a farm and says it is important to have the time and space to enjoy the pup. And while it costs an average of €15,000 to train an assistance dog, the cost is covered.
“The cost of feeding, the vets fees, the jackets and leads are all covered. To puppy foster it is just important that you are around the pup most of the time.
“The fact we are on a farm is helpful because they get used to all the different animals and noises. They have to learn to behave themselves and to sit and lie down when they are told. They have to learn to not to be jumping up on people and things like that.
“It isn’t very different to training a dog normally but they have to be able to walk by your side and ignore everything else.
“I had one failure, a pup called Jake. He wouldn’t stop going for the football. He was a great dog otherwise. They offered to let me keep him, so we did!”
Noreen says: “My children are grown up, all between 30 and 35, but I have grandchildren who come around and they love the pups. We have our own dogs too who always put them in their place when they arrive and teach them who is boss!”
Michelle Roberts lives in Mallow with her two children, Zack, seven, and Leah, six. Last year there was a new addition to the family when black labrador, Maddie arrived to be an assistance dog for Zack.
“Zack was first diagnosed with autism when he was about two and a half. Originally so much was thrown at me, I had to do this and that. I went into flight mode and I did everything! An application for the Autism Assistance Dog was one of the first things I did.
“Having Maddie is great. Leah loves her to pieces and sometimes Zack can actually take her or leave her. But that is at home when Maddie is just being a dog.
“When she is working and is wearing her jacket, Zack is attached to Maddie and that is when she is so important.
“Before, Zack could have a very bad meltdown and it could come out anywhere. It could happen because of the light or the environment. He would lie on the ground and scream. There would be no getting him up.
“Now, I tell him his job is to mind Maddie and he pays so much attention he is distracted.
“Going into town is much easier. Before I would have avoided leaving the house completely. We were very isolated before we got Maddie.
“The one thing I thought I knew about autism before Zack was diagnosed is that a child with autism is locked in their own world. But now I know that Zack is very much in our world. That is a total misconception. He has massive ability in some areas and might struggle in others.
“All in all, a child with autism is the same as any child.
“The fundraising is so important. This is something that is needed. It is such a good charity to give to and the results can be seen.
“Everyone in Mallow sees us, if they have given money to the Autism Assistance Dogs they know that that money went towards people like us. It makes a huge difference.”
For more about the work of the AADI see www.autismassistancedogsireland.ie or call 022 43851.
Autism Assistance Dogs Ireland have a waiting list as long as five years and are always seeking volunteers to foster pups. JANE MCNAMARA talks to the founder of the charity about their work, a volunteer who fosters dogs and a family who have benefited from the scheme