Four little paws altered our family life forever

Four little paws altered our family life forever
Conor O'Neill with assistance dog Quelda.Pictures: Denis Minihane.

A new two-part documentary, beginning on TG4 on Wednesday night, explores the lives of working dogs in Ireland. One of the organisations involved is Cork-based Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind. Ahead of the first episode, Cork mother Trish O’Neill describes how the arrival of their dog Quelda changed life for the whole family.

Cork mother Trish O’Neill describes how the arrival of their dog Quelda changed life for the whole family.
Cork mother Trish O’Neill describes how the arrival of their dog Quelda changed life for the whole family.

AS you read this, I would like to you to image a scenario in your mind. Imagine that you are in a foreign country, a place that you have never been before.

The sights are new and confusing, the sounds are different, the smells are different. Perhaps you are in a busy shopping centre on a busy day. Imagine the hustle, the bustle and the strange faces all around you.

You suddenly realise that you are lost, and you begin to panic a little because you do not speak the language and cannot ask for help.

Now imagine that you are a child in this situation. Or imagine you are the parent of this child — imagine the terror of knowing that your child is lost, unable to ask for help. Scary right?

I don’t have to imagine this nightmare, because I lived it just over a year ago.

My son, Conor went missing in a shopping centre in Cork on a busy Saturday afternoon. In a split second, he boarded a crowded lift and was gone. Now this is a frightening circumstance for any parent, but for us it was much more terrifying. Conor has autism, with very few words and no sense of danger.

Luckily, this is a story with a happy ending; thanks to the quick thinking centre security, a happy blonde haired little boy was found browsing perfumes on the ground floor….with Mum and Dad two floors up living the most horrible 20 minutes of their lives.

For us, shopping centres, city centres and other open spaces were off limits. Parks and playgrounds that were not secure were off the list.

We could not visit anywhere with open water, as Conor loves water and would try to jump in, not understanding the dangers of drowning. As a family, our outings became limited to 4/5 playgrounds. The other option being the family splitting up — Dad with two kids and Mum with one.

And outings became synonymous with meltdowns….everywhere we went, Conor had one of us gripped on to his shoulder or arm. If he tried to run off and was physically restrained we could spend the next 60 minutes dealing with him kicking and screaming.

Slowly but surely, we began to give up, saying no to playdates, saying no thank you to parties, opting to stay home where it was safe. Life was isolating and lonely.

To make matters worse, in November 2018, Conor lost his school place. It felt like doors were closing everywhere and we did not belong.

But in April 2019, four little paws walked into our lives and changed everything.

Quelda, a two-year-old Labrador/Retriever from the Irish Guide Dogs was, specifically matched to Conor and our family. At first, I was apprehensive. I just couldn’t see how this dog would handle a child with behavioural issues.

But I put my trust in our Irish Guide Dog trainer and their team and began the journey. It was far from easy at the beginning; lots of tears (from Conor and me!) and very short walks. But with our trainer there to support us every step of the way, we didn’t give up.

Slowly but surely, it became easier. And six months later, nothing was off limits.

The O'Neill family, Trish, Eoin, Conor, Aoibhínn and Ben walking with assistance dog Quelda at the Regional Park, Ballincollig.
The O'Neill family, Trish, Eoin, Conor, Aoibhínn and Ben walking with assistance dog Quelda at the Regional Park, Ballincollig.

In fact, the list of places we could go began to grow…from the city centre, to the Regional Park. We go to every shopping centre, trains, buses…..and open water is no longer a problem — in fact, Conor loves to visit Cobh now and we can relax knowing that he is safe.

Our lives have changed completely. Conor is a new child; he is happier, more relaxed and there is a visible difference in his behaviour. He has also found a wonderful and amazing school that believe in him and see his potential.

As a family, we go everywhere together and days out are stress free.

I now say that before I leave the house, I check for phone, my wallet, my keys and my Quelda.

Quelda has really become a very important part of our family. Sometimes I tell people that I have four kids!

From the very first phone call, we felt like the Irish Guide Dogs cared about us. We were with them now, they would look after us.

For the first time, we belonged. They helped us when nobody else did, opened their door and changed our lives. To me, the Irish Guide Dogs are, and forever will be, family.

You can learn more about the O’Neill family and the tremendous difference these dogs from Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind can make to families at Facebook.com/queldasquest.

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