Great tails with a happy ending

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  • Date: Mon, 22 Oct 2007 21:36:34 -0400

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


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