Ten years after Dogs for Good began the training of its first autism assistance dog, the charity says it has helped nearly 80 families but there are still many more who could benefit.
Dogs for Good (formerly known as Dogs for the Disabled) rebranded in 2015 to reflect the wider services it now offers including its work to support people with autistic spectrum conditions. Peter Gorbing, chief executive of Dogs for Good said: “Our assistance dogs can be life-transforming for the families we support, helping the whole family to enjoy everyday activities together, often for the first time. There are so many more people we could help – every week we get enquiries from parents who would like to investigate the possibilities that life with an autism assistance dog could bring. We believe there is huge potential to help more people and are widening the services we offer to help meet demand but if we are to make a significant impact we will need greater support to help us reach more people.
The first autism assistance dog, Percy, a black Labrador cross golden retriever began training in 2006 and was matched to a Bristol-based family, the Johnsons, in early 2007. Percy became a friend and calming focus for the Johnsons’ son who had learning disabilities and autism traits.
In public spaces, Autism Assistance Dogs are trained to walk in a harness with directions given by a parent who is trained as a team leader. A child wears a discrete belt connected to the dog as well as holding onto a handle. Families regularly describe the impact as life-changing, allowing them to go out as a family and enjoy everyday activities like going to restaurants, the shops, cinema or other leisure activities as a whole family – sometimes for the first time ever. Parents also note that children become more relaxed at home and have fewer meltdowns thanks to partnership with an assistance dog.
The development of the autism assistance dog service has also led to Dogs for Good introducing its Family Dog service offering workshops to families with a child with autism who wanted to explore the help of a pet dog. The Family Dog service has now supported over 700 families.
More recently the charity commenced its Community Dog service where dogs work alongside a skilled handler to provide animal assisted intervention techniques to people facing specific challenges. Many of the techniques used for training autism assistance dogs have been used in the Community Dog programme to bring benefits to adults with autism and students at Special Educational Needs Schools.