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The Afternoon Show
The Afternoon ShowRTÉ One, Weekdays, 4.00pm

Four Legged Friends -Assistance Dogs

Friday, 29 January 2010

Pamela Flood
Pamela Flood has worked in television now for almost 12 years. Having started as a continuity announcer back in 1998, Pamela moved to London where she worked in production at the BBC before going back in front of camera with the Travel Channel who she was with for 3 years. Pamela returned to Dublin in November 2001 to work on Off the Rails. In the meantime she has taken part in other programmes for RTE such as No Frontiers, Anonymous, The Afternoon Show, The Panel and The Restaurant. She also presented the 2008 series Marry Me.


The Assistance Dogs Programme for families of children with Autism was introduced by Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind (IGDB) in 2004. Since then almost 100 families have been trained with a dog which has had a significant impact on improving the quality of life of parents, siblings and the child with Autism. The presence of the Assistance Dog contributes to reduced stress in the home as the child with Autism connects with the dog and through this connection better relates to its parents, siblings and others.

Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind has built the capacity on the programme with a major capital programme and recruitment of staff and are now in a position to train in excess of 40 families per year. The cost of operating the programme is approximately €1,5 million per annum. All training aftercare and support is offered free of charge. To date the programme has been supported by a series of once off grants from the Department of Justice Equality and Law Reform (2005-2008) and the Department of Education (2008-2009). In December 2009, the Department of Education and Science donated €150,000 towards the programme. While fundraising is ongoing, it is insufficient to guarantee the future of the service.

About the Assistance Dog Programme

Autism is a disability that affects the normal development of the brain in areas of social interaction and communication. Autistic people have difficulty in interpreting gestures, body language, tone of voice and facial expressions. Children with autism find it hard to relate to other people, are easily stressed by new people, places and circumstances and are often unawareness of danger. The Assistance Dog Programme for families of children with Autism is designed to provide quality of life improvements to the Autistic child and their family. The intervention is based on the principle of providing a fully trained dog to the parents and the autistic child and providing them with the training and support to ensure that the dog works to the maximum of its abilities.

While no autistic child is typical, the behaviours exhibited can lead to isolation, (lack of interaction with family, siblings, other people), mobility issues, sociability issues, lack of awareness of danger and limits. In these circumstances, the general feeling and quality of life for the parents and family members is that of high stress, lack of "normality" in social situations, (not being able to go shopping, restaurant, travel, leisure.) There are real issues of safety with the children having a high tendency to bolt in open spaces.

IGDB has the expertise in training guide dogs and providing training in their safe use to guide blind and visually impaired people. This expertise can be transferred to a dog for use with an autistic child. The dog is the same breed, age, and temperament as a guide dog but its training differs in that it is trained to work with and react to an autistic child and their family. The parents are trained in the use of the dog and how to get their child to interact with it and use it as a guide, support and stabilizer. Each Assistance Dog wears a special blue jacket, which has a small handle attached.

There is a belt attached to the child's waist and short lead attaching the child to the dog. The parent, using an extended lead from behind or the side, then controls both the child and the dog. The dog responds to the verbal commands from the parent who controls speed and direction. Autistic children often lack a sense of danger so the fact that the child is attached to the dog means the parent can have confidence that the child is safe without hanging onto a sleeve, hood or hand. If the child tries to bolt, the dog will sit down.

The Assistance Dog Programme has been independently evaluated annually since 2004. Parents participating in the programme have spoken of significant moderations in the behaviour of the children. Based on feedback from parents, the following benefits have been highlighted:

- Increase child's independence
- Control child by commanding dog
- Teaches the child responsibility
- Full public access to shops, restaurants, etc.
- Positive changes in behaviour, lower aggression level
- Comforts when upset

The dog brings independence not just for the children but for their parents. The companionship, confidence and independence that an Assistance Dog offers an Autistic child empowers the child to participate in education, social and leisure activities, reduces the stress associated with interacting with other people and getting involved in social situations. Parents have spoken of how the trained Assistance Dog has moderated their child's behaviours which has left them feeling less isolated in social settings.