The Irish Independent Monday, October 22, 2007 Great tails with a happy ending By Sue Leonard Most people with a dog consider their furry friend to be a member of the family. But for some, they have a much more important role, acting as guide dogs for blind and autistic family members Ask Sorcha Whooley how many children there are in her family, and she'll say there are three. She's the oldest, at 10, there's her brother, Murray, nine, and there's Clive who's two. Clive is a big, beautiful "golden doodle" -- a golden retriever crossed with a poodle. He's been loaned to the family to act as a companion to Murray, who has autism. In the house Clive is a pet; following Murray around, jumping with him on the trampoline, or sitting with his head on Murray's knee. Once he's out, though, wearing his special blue jacket, he becomes a working dog. And he has transformed life for the whole Whooley family. "When Murray was first diagnosed with autism at two, when we lived in Belgium, we were devastated," says his mum, Fiona. "He had no speech at the time; he just screamed. Now I wouldn't have him any other way. He is a lovely, funny kid with a great take on the world." The family moved back to Ireland four years ago, and Murray now attends a special school just down the road. But initally, it was hard to go out anywhere. "Murray wanted his routine at home," says Fiona. "He hated crowds, and he's not aware of danger. We couldn't last long in a restaurant-- you'd always be apologising. And when Sorcha did her communion, we left Murray behind. He would never have coped in the church." Murray has always loved animals though. He has an aquarium, and is soothed by the fish. "Then Tinkerbelle, a stray cat, took up residence. Murray really got on her with her. If we touch her she is liable to scratch us, but he can do anything to her and she just lets him." So when Fiona read that the Irish Guide Dog Association was supplying trained dogs for children with autism, she applied at once. "They came out and did a thorough assessment," she says. "They interviewed us all, to make sure that we showed commitment. I went to Cork for two weeks to train with Clive, then we had a few follow-up visits. Clive came to us in June last year. "Siblings have to understand that the dog is there for the child with autism. They have to stand back while the bond is established. That was hard for Sorcha." That is until, of course, she saw how life improved. Murray has transformed. He's a sweet, sociable boy who chats non-stop. He tells me all about Clive; how he went on holiday with the family to Spain -- sitting beside Murray on the plane and calming him through the crowds at the airport. Transformed "Last weekend we walked around Stephen's Green," says Fiona. "We went shopping and we ate in Milanos. We could never have done that before. Murray would just lie down and scream. "He took his communion this year. Clive went to the church, too. When Murray had his wafer, Clive had a treat. Murray helps look after him. He throws the ball for him and helps to feed him. He loves the responsibility. "We can now live a normal life. We can go out and enjoy everything, and see our children's enjoyment in the dog. Clive is like a third child." Fiona doesn't take it for granted though. She and her husband, Colm, fund-raise so that more families will be able to join the scheme. She gives talks in schools, teaching children about autism, and how a trained dog can help. Clive has changed life for Sorcha, too. And the best change, she says, is that she can go shopping. "We can go all round the Dundrum centre now," she says. "Before, Murray wanted to stay outside looking at the water." Neil Ashworth, client services manager with Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind (IGDB) says that the Assistance Dog Programme has been a huge success. "It gives parents of a child with autism a safety valve," he says. "One parent walks with the dog, and the child is attached to the dog. The dog responds to any danger. If the child tries to bolt, for example, the dog is trained to sit. "The parents feel more comfortable, and the child relaxes. This has a knock-on effect for the whole family. The parents start to go out more as a family." The bond that develops between the child and the dog is an added bonus. "The dog has a calming effect. The child has a different relationship with the dog than they have with their siblings or their parents. "Some families note significant changes in the child's behaviour, for others the change is more subtle. The child starts to make eye contact with the dog, and extends this to siblings and parents." The scheme started seven years ago in Canada as a way of using dogs who had been trained, but were not skilled enough to work with blind people. It began as a pilot scheme in Ireland in 2005. There are currently 30 families on the scheme, but with expansion, Ashworth hopes that 40 to 50 families will be partnered with a dog every year." The IGDB tend to use cross breeds, because in the first cross between two pure breeds natural selection takes place. "You get a healthier dog, who takes the best part of both breeds," he says. Paul Traynor from Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan, was 26 when he lost his sight after an accident playing football. It was 1990, and his whole world collapsed. "I was working as a builder at the time," he says, when we meet at the National Council for the Blind of Ireland's (NCBI) headquarters in Dublin. "I drove a car, I cycled and I was in a relationship. "For two years, I did nothing. I was in and out of hospital having operations. My car was sitting outside the house. Whenever I wanted to go anywhere, my mother had to take me. My relationship broke up under the strain, and my independence crumbled." When his mother asked him if he'd consider a guide dog, Paul was horrified. "That would be admitting that I needed help," he says. "I was convinced my sight would come back, even though doctors had told me it would not." Eventually, he gave in. "Another patient who was blind said to me, 'if you break a leg, you use a crutch to get better. Think of the guide dog as a crutch'. That made sense." Better life So, on September 19, 1992, Kitty, a German shepherd/ retriever cross entered Paul's life. "I trained with her in Cork for four weeks. It worked really well. And life improved immediately," he says. Soon, he and Kitty were walking around the town with confidence. Paul did his own shopping and he walked five to six miles every day. "Then I thought, 'there must be something more'. So I trained in computers, taking some university coursesses and, eventually, getting some qualifications. "I taught sighted people computers for a while, and then in 1999 I got a job with the National Council of the Blind. I support blind adults and children in the workplace, in colleges and schools." At the age of 10, Kitty developed arthritis and died. Her replacement, a German shepherd called Shaque, was an amazing dog. "She was a lovely animal. I could always depend on her, but after three years, she twisted herself and her back legs became paralysed. She had to be put down. I was heartbroken." And because of his grief, Paul failed to bond with his next dog, a black labrador retriever cross. At the time, the IGDA had no trained German Shepherds, so they put in an international appeal and imported Elvis, an American guide dog from Morristown, New Jersey in June. It has been a huge success. "Usually, it takes eight months to feel comfortable with a dog. "Already I feel Elvis's work is good. "He is a beautiful dog to work with -- gentle and calm in every situation." "I live alone now, and Elvis is great company. Sometimes, when I'm listening to TV, he jumps up with all four legs onto my knee." - Sue Leonard http://www.independent.ie/health/great-tails-with-a-happy-ending-1200845.html BlindNews Mailing List Subscribe: BlindNews-Request@xxxxxxxxxxxxx with "subscribe" as subject Unsubscribe: BlindNews-Request@xxxxxxxxxxxxx with "unsubscribe" as subject Moderator: BlindNews-Moderators@xxxxxxxxxxxxx Archive: http://GeoffAndWen.com/blind RSS: http://GeoffAndWen.com/BlindNewsRSS.asp More information about RSS feeds will be published shortly.