AN IRISH CHARITY which trains autism assistance dogs for children is coming up on its third anniversary, having trained more than 40 dogs in that time with another 12 due to be certified in by the end of July.
My Canine Companion, which is based in Cork, has six paid members of staff and its €150,000 running costs come entirely from public donations.
Clíona O’Rourke, who set up the charity, told TheJournal.ie that the dogs cost around €8,000 each to train fully.
“I was actually the first person in Ireland to train service dogs for children with autism – with a different organisation – but I thought it we were to set up a separate charity we’d really be able to individualise it,” she said.
For the most part, the charity’s revenue is dependent on fundraising events organised by grateful families who want to give something back after receiving a dog trained by the charity.
Many of them are eager to tell their success stories so here are just a few…
Oisín and Oscar
One such family, is that of Oisín Dutton, an 8-year-old boy from Dublin whose best friend is his assistance dog Oscar. Oscar first came to the family as a puppy, to allow them to bond with him. After a year and a half, he was sent for official training with the My Canine Companion charity in Cork and he boy’s mother Sinéad said he came back a completely different dog.
“We could see the changes instantly,” she told TheJournal.ie “These dogs go as puppies, as older pups, and when they arrive back it’s amazing. I still remember when we did the test with him – it was Christmas week – and he was doing the lefts and rights and stopping at the curb.”
You’re putting the safety of the child with them, attaching them to the dog. You’re putting a huge amount of trust in them.
Oisín’s main problem is with his self-confidence and his mother said he’s come a long way since he’s had Oscar by his side as a fully trained companion.
Oscar is actually a very handsome dog, he stands out and so when he was a puppy people approached us to say “he’s lovely” and “what’s he doing in the stop?”. At first, Oisín was a bit nervous but as Oscar got bigger and more qualified, now he speaks to people and tells them he’s a labradoodle. Now he’ll tell you he’s his assistance dog and he helps him.
“Now when people talk to him he’s actually go into a full-blown conversation about Oscar and then continue, so it’s given him something to talk about,” she said.
Oscar’s great training also means the family can get out and about more with Oisín and his older brother who is 14-years-old. “We never used to go to the cinema because Oisín would hate the noise but now, I can’t explain it, now he has Oscar, who is his best friend, with him and he loves it”.
The family have also been away on holidays to Spain and have taken Oscar on board with them to make Oisín feel more comfortable.
Mikey and Ralph
Mikey was just three-year-old when his dog Ralph went to live with his family.
When Ralph was a puppy, Mikey had no interest in him and his mother said she remembers felling disappointed about this and said that they wouldn’t have the bond she had heard so much about.
“In December my husband Mick went to Cork for training with Ralph. He phoned me and said he couldn’t get over how calm, obedient and grown up Ralph had become,” she said.
When Ralph came home Mikey straight away started to notice him. Looking back we feel he missed him when he was away. Slowly he started to show Ralph more attention, looking at him and touching him. Ralph would sit quietly and gently respond but when Mikey had enough and moved away he never followed him it was like he knew when to let him be.
“Mikey now loves Ralph and seeks him out so he can be with him,” she added. “It is amazing to see Mikey visibly calming in Ralphs company. We feel really blessed.”
Craig and Shannon
20-year-old Craig almost certainly would not have received a canine companion from any of the other charities that train them because of his age.
His own mother, Vicki said she was not sure herself whether it was a good idea, because he had never shown any interest in dogs.
“Craig was upstairs when Shannon came to our home and I called him down to meet Shannon – we were all out the back. Then they both laid eyes on each other it was lke love at first sight. Shannon went straight over to Craig, jumped up on him, put her paws over his arms like linking him, as if to say “I’m going to be minding you”. Of course my eyes filled up.
I thought Shannon jumping up on Craig, that he wouldn’t like that, but he did – I can’t explain it.
She said that before Shannon arrived at their home in 2013, Craig, who is non-verbal, was “very active, very hyper” and would not sit down for more than two minutes, apart from mealtimes.
Now, when he comes home from school and is greeted at the door with a hug from his best friend, he heads upstairs to lie down and watch TV with her for a few hours. His mother said he even joins the family now in the evening to watch television, lying on the armchair with Shannon, stroking her fur. This is a big change as Craig rarely socialised at home with his family before his canine companion came to stay.
Shannon has also given the 20-year-old more independence as he can walk holding her jacket now instead of one of his parent’s hands.
“He is a totally different young man since she came along much happier in himself much calmer – it’s so wonderful to see the anxiety gone from him. To see him sit around with us as a family is fantastic too.”
Mikey and Ralph’s story is published with permission from the My Canine Companion blog.