Back in Sheffield again for week 2 of training. Having had a terrible time on Friday in the supermarket trying to negotiate the busy aisles with a trolley and a dog, I was a little disheartened. Though I did try to tell Michelle, my trainer, that I cannot manage a trolley at any time, the dog was a mere distraction in an environment I usually meltdown in. Still, on the upside, I did get as far as the wine aisle, so all was not lost.
Today was a practice at Meadowhall Shopping Centre, and another trip to Pets at Home, as tomorrow morning I have my first Public Access Test. This means I will be tested on my handling of Lucie, so that I qualify to take her home (like a learner driver) on probation training for six months, before the big test to qualify as her handler. So after a good day today I am less nervous about tomorrow.
Anyway - I said I would let you know what an autism dog is, so let me give an outline. There are some TV dramas and books on this, which whilst very entertaining, can give a rather over glamorised view of the possibilities of an assistance dog. The classic line seems to be somehow (and especially if you believe in miracles) your child will start to talk when this magic dog joins the family. Whilst there is a lot of basis to think your child communication skills may improve, its more about the nuts and bolts of daily life where you would expect to see the greatest impact....so what may we hope to change with an assistance dog? I'll do a list, as I like lists!
- Improved mobility - your child is harnessed to the dog, whilst I as handler control the dog by a second lead. This system helps your child walk safely in difficult environments, and learn to walk calmly. For kids who bolt off, or stop dead, this can really improve with attached walking with the dog.
- Bonding with an animal - the uncomplicated relationship with an animal with no social or verbal demands can be an ideal friend for an autistic child. This bond can raise the confidence and improve social interactions with the child.
- Reduce stress - your child may often be stressed at transition or in new or challenging environments. Having the dog with them, as their friend and almost like a comfort blanket, it can give them a calm confidence to manage more challenging situations
- Learning self help skills - by caring for the dog, with their grooming, cleaning teeth, feeding and toileting, you can expect the child to gain a greater awareness of their own needs, and transfer some skills to learning how to care for themselves more
- Social interactions - sharing, turn taking, empathy and understanding can all be developed by simple games with the dog like hide and seek, or throw/catch games, leading to more complex play
- More appealing to public - where our kids may avoid the public interactions, having a dog can invite interest, and help to create positive friendships
- Improved stress levels for the whole household - regular outdoor walking, improved confidence in community places, and the pleasure of owning a dog, can really help the whole family to gain from the relationship.
That's obviously not an exhaustive list but gives a starting point. The real beauty is the sky is the limit on where you can take the advantages of an assistance dog, as the more you put in the more you can all get out if it. Keeping it simple to start, just to try and improve one thing at a time is the key aim, and then you can get more ambitious as the relationship is established and confidence improves. Like our children, dogs will have good and bad days, and can only deal with so much. They are not machines, or little people, and like us, will have ups and downs. So this journey will be chequered as we navigate that.
By the way - I should mention, I am also discovering the cost of owning a dog! I barely filled a quarter of a basket at the pet store today on a few essentials and spent £85, and that is not to mention the insurance I need to buy this week. And lets not discuss food costs just yet! So the commitment as an owner is both in your time, energy, compromises and wallet. A big commitment not to be taken lightly. But one I am certain will pay back many times over in the opportunities Lucie and Alex will share.
It is 5pm and tonight I have the rare treat of being able to go out for dinner with a great friend. A real pleasure to feel free for the night. It was hard leaving the family this morning for another week, not only because I miss them, but also knowing Dave has a big job working full time, and sorting the kids out, with not much sleep. I have some guilt, but for tonight, I shall enjoy my freedom, and hopefully it will take my mind off my test in the morning......watch this space - I'll let you know how it goes!