There’s been a lot of coverage in the media recently about the positive impact that assistant dogs can have on families with autistic children. I couldnt agree more. Dog are fabulous companions, very loyal and loving and can have a marvellous calming effect.
BUT, get the wrong dog, and the consequences could be disastrous. With demand on the rise for these dogs there are many companies that supposedly train and supply them for a hefty fee. You’ll find you can purchase a dog for a cool £7,000 to £10,000 usually. Not exactly pocket money is it. Because of the financial commitment it takes to not only purchase one of these dogs, but maintain its health and lifestyle over the years it is with you, it’s essential that you choose the right company and above all, the right dog. Because if it all goes wrong, the emotional and financial losses you will experience will be significant. Believe me, I know.
I’m not a qualified dog trainer. But they say hindsight is 20/20. After our first experience purchasing an assistant dog failed hugely, I have many tips and advice for those approaching the idea for the first time. We may well try again in the future, after all we are huge dog lovers! So here are a few pointers for you to consider before signing up to a specific company.
1. Please understand the commitment it takes to own a dog. They will take up a lot of your time and money. They will need love and affection, and exercise! But the more you put in, the more you will get out of owning a dog.
2. The company you sign up to MUST be accredited to Assistant Dogs International or actively working towards accreditation if they are a new company. Absolutely no excuses on this one. Check out their website for a list of accredited providers in the UK.
3. Dog trainers must have an in depth knowledge of autism. Being a qualified dog trainer isn’t good enough. They need to understand your daily challenges and needs, as well as your child’s behaviours (such as sensory regulation).
4. Make sure the dog is fully desentised to autistic behaviours. There is a HUGE difference between a well trained dog and an autism assistance dog. They must be able to remain calm in a stressful environment, be extremely tolerant to loud noise (in particular screaming), and be happy to spend time on their own when your child needs attention. A dog who is jealous when you need to divert your attention elsewhere is a major problem. Believe me.
5. What is the dogs background? Where EXACTLY do they come from? If you’re purchasing a puppy, where will they live whilst they are trained? With autistic children? With neurotypical children? With children at all?? If you’re purchasing an older dog, what is their history? If they have been rejected from another assistance dog programme, why? If they have been rehomed from another family, what makes them suitable for assistance dog work? Which takes me on to my next point…
6. Make sure they have been in a training program for a decent amount of time. There’s a reason that guide dog puppies remain in training for an entire year. Make sure your dog has been trained for longer than just a couple of months. It takes an intense and lengthy training program to ensure that your dog can be 100% trusted in all environments to behave and follow instructions.
7. Make sure the dog has regular visits to your home whilst they are in training. They need to understand your environment and where they will be living. This will also help reassure you that the dog will settle once they have moved in. They should undergo training in your home so that they are aware of where they are allowed to go, where their safe space is and objects that they are not allowed to chew. Once the dog moves in you need them to be settled quickly as you won’t be able to stop paying your child the attention they need. It’s not fun trying to change a nappy of an autistic child when your dog has run off down the garden with a clean nappy. Not fun at all.
8. Make sure the dog is able to cope in your local environment. Whether you live in a city centre or out in the sticks surrounded by farmland, your dog needs to be comfortable and familiar with sights, sounds and smells. Becoming easily distracted by a cow mooing will not help your child when they are in meltdown on the way to the shops.
9. Make sure you have plenty of play dates so your child can familiarise yourself with the dog. They can learn each other’s behaviours and possibly even predict each other’s movements. This will only help even more when the dog eventually moves in.
10. This is a big one folks. CHECK YOUR CONTRACT. What happens if the dog assigned to you isn’t suitable? Will you lose your money? Will another dog be provided in an adequate time scale? Most decent companies have at least a year long wait for a dog, and then some. To wait another year is a very long time if it all goes Pete tong. Losing thousands of pounds is also not high on your to do list. Check for phrases such as “non refundable contribution” and “voluntary contribution”. This could mean that if the dog fails to settle, you could lose your money. Either that or you have a lengthy court battle ahead of you. Neither are ideal.
11. And finally, if you have any slither of doubt that this dog is not right for you, SAY SO. Do not sign anything unless you are 100% sure. Verbal agreements that you can change the dog etc. are not good enough. Trust your gut. You’ll know if this dog is for you.
So these are my tips for anyone considering the autism assistance dog route. Get it wrong, and it can have disastrous consequences. But get it right, and your lives will become richer in ways you couldn’t imagine before.
Thanks for reading,