This July, we’re very proud to be celebrating the 10th Anniversary of our Family Dog service. This innovative, UK-wide, workshop-based service is the only one of its kind in the UK and helps parents with an autistic child explore techniques and training to enable a pet dog to bring support for the whole family. 

Our Family Dog Service – Dogs for Good from Dogs for Good on Vimeo.

Emily and her autism assistance dog Oslo.

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Dogs for Good developed the Family Dog service using the charity’s experience of training assistance dogs to help autistic children and their families. 

To date, over 1400 families have benefitted from the Family Dog service, demand remains as high as ever and the service model has now been adopted by a number of organisations across the world including Canada, Spain, Holland and Australia. 

Jackie, who attended a Family Dog workshop in 2010 says:

“It’s hard to believe that we didn’t have a dog 10 years ago. Owning one has transformed my family and the advice I was given during that workshop has proved invaluable. Thank you.”

Autism in the UK

Autism affects some 700,000 people in the UK.  Include other family members and autism is part of daily life for an estimated 2.8 million people.*

In 2016, a study conducted by Dogs for Good and the University of Lincoln, researched whether dogs could have an impact on families with a child with autism and the results were powerful and positive.  The families that Dogs for Good worked with experienced significantly lowered parental stress, were able to go out more together and autistic children experienced fewer meltdowns as a result of their pet dog. 

Can any dog help?

Pet dogs come in all shapes and sizes and while some families that attend the workshops will already have a four-legged friend, others don’t and some have never had a dog before.

Workshop attendee, Kath, knew that she wanted a well-trained, clever dog that would help provide her son, Mitchell with a friend and companion.However, mindful of ‘getting it right’, Kath, was concerned that she and her husband didn’t have the necessary knowledge to even start the search for the right dog, never mind train one. 

She found out about Dogs for Good’s Family Dog workshops and says “From the moment I walked into the first workshop, I knew this was the right thing to do.

“You know how these things usually are when you first arrive.  A room full of adults, staring at their mobiles or notepads, looking awkward… But at the Family Dog workshop the trainers had their three dogs with them and the whole dynamic of the room was different. Everyone bonded instantly – smiling and playing with the dogs.  I remember thinking to myself ‘if this is the positive impact three dogs can bring to a roomful of awkward adults, I can’t wait to see what one will bring to Mitchell!”

The workshops explain and explore the importance of choosing the right dog for each family’s needs; the size of dog, its likely energy levels,  how much exercise it needs and of course its temperament are all things a family needs to consider in making the best choice.

In addition, for a child with autism, there are likely to be less obvious but very important things to consider when choosing the right dog.  For example, sensory needs can make the choice of a dog’s coat crucial, while some children may have a preference for a bigger or a smaller dog or may be quite anxious around a very active dog.

Some families want guidance on how to select a good breeder and some will want help with getting their dog from a rescue centre; both are topics that the workshops discuss and explore.

While the most popular breeds of dogs for most families attending the workshops are Labradors, golden retrievers and cockapoos, breeds such as bichon frise, springer spaniels, Jack Russell, shih tzus and Bernese mountain dogs all prove popular choices.  And it’s not all about pure breeds as many families find their perfect dog in crossbreeds and ‘bitzers’.

Problem solving and sharing insights

An important feature of the workshops is discussion and one parent reported how encouraging it was to ‘talk about solutions rather than problems’. Parents get the chance to share any worries and with the Instructors help, come up with ideas about how a pet dog can help. 

Discussions range from helping to establish positive routines around things like getting dressed, going to school and teeth cleaning, to using the dog as a motivator to go out more, play games and learn rules to helping to calm an anxious child. 

Liz attended workshops to help her son, Jacob and says: “I remember at the first workshop, I just couldn’t believe it when the Instructors went through what they could teach us and how it might help Jacob.  I just sat there and cried. I was thinking ‘this could be life-changing, it’s just amazing.’ It was also brilliant to meet and talk to other parents of autistic children.  I remember thinking ‘we’re all in this together, our struggles are real and these people really understand. We are not alone.’”

Ongoing support

Support doesn’t end at the final workshop, either.  The Family Dog Instructor team offer advice and support to workshop attendees via telephone calls and emails as well as by video and advice sheets.  A private Facebook group offers peer support, too. 

Paula, whose grandson Josh has autism and who got Cockapoo Lucy after attending the workshops six years ago, says: “It was absolutely the best thing I could do for both Lucy and Josh. The support you get after the workshops take it beyond just being a service; you are welcomed into a very supportive community.”. You can read their story here.

Coronavirus update

While the Dogs for Good Family Dog service workshops have had to be put on hold over the last few months, the team are in the final stages of developing virtual workshops.

Hannah Beal is one of the Instructor team and says:  “We’re really excited about being able to offer virtual workshops for people and it’s something that we’ve been wanting to do for some time.  We know that attending workshops creates a really good dynamic and invaluable experience for everyone who attends but for some families, getting to a workshop can still be a challenge.  So, we hope these virtual events will be a success now and continue to run even after lockdown eases.”

If you’ve attended the Family Dog workshops in the last ten years or have seen a special connection between a child with autism and a pet dog, we’d love to hear from you as we celebrate 10 years of the service.

* Source: National Autistic Society

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