By Maresa Fagan, Roscommon Herald, 8th December 2009.
Christmas has come early for five year-old Calum Leyden from Strokestown. Calum is enjoying a new lease of life thanks to his new canine companion, Juni, an assistance dog for families with children with Autism.
Calum and his family are one of 100 families across the country to receive an assistance dog under this pioneering programme being run by the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind. The initiative was launched in 2004 and was the first of its kind to be rolled out in Europe. Under the programme dogs are specially trained by the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind to work with an autistic child and his or her family.The assistance dogs are provided to families with children with autism as a way of enhancing the development of the child, increasing safety levels, and providing greater independence for both the child and parents among other benefits.
For little Calum Leyden, who is the first child to receive an assistance dog in the western region, the arrival of Juni just over a week ago, has already brought great joy for him and his family. Calum and Juni, the 22-month-old Labrador Cross Retriever, have really hit it off and Calum has taken on an new lease of life since the dog arrived into their home, according to Calum’s mother, Monica.
"I think Santa has come early this year in this house. Calum couldn’t have asked for a better gift because it’s a new lease of life for him," Monica said. "Juni has had a great calming effect on him and it’s something I wouldn’t have believed in until I saw it myself. It’s amazing. No money in this world could pay for what he has been given," Monica added. Monica explained that Juni would act as a companion and comfort to Calum, as well as having a positive affect on his behaviour and learning and social skills development.
"When we went for one of our first walks with Juni, Calum was delighted. He felt ‘nobody’s holding my hand, I can go free’ and I’ve never seen him as happy to be outside," she said. Some of the benefits of having an assistance dog include increasing the level of safety for the child, the constant companionship improves socialisation and interaction, the dog has a calming effect on the child, increasing the independence of child and family, and reducing stress for both the child and family. "The dog provides great independence not just for the children but also for the parents. The companionship, complementing the independence that the assistance dog gives to the child, can empower the child to participate in a lot of educational, functional and leisure activities and it reduces the stress that is sometimes experienced with those" Monica explained.
"Having a child with autism can be so challenging for parents, it can be so stressful. And especially if you’re out and you’re trying to manage your child and do your shopping and your child takes a tantrum. With the dog, however, you have a sense of independence for your child and yourself and you feel more secure," she said.
Parents are given five days training with dogs at the organisations headquarters in Cork and when the dog is placed with a family trainers visit regularly as part of an ongoing aftercare programme. Assistance dogs, such as Juni, retire after eight years but they can be kept by families as pets thereafter. Monica pointed out that timing was an important factor and could yield greater benefits for the child, where an assistance dog is placed with a child from an earlier age. "Timing and getting an assistance dog is vital because the earlier the child can access the dog the greater the benefit in terms of the overall learning and development of the child," she said.
The addition of Juni to the Leyden family has been a win-win situation, according to Monica, who said that assistance provided by dogs, like Juni, was priceless. "When you actually go to the headquarters in Cork and see the work that the Irish Guide Dogs put into these dogs, it’s just incredible," Monica said.Monica highly recommended the programme and encouraged parents with a child with autism to consider applying for an assistance dog.
The programme is geared towards children with autism, from three years up to 10 years of age. Unfortunately due to the phenomenal demand for assistance dogs there is currently a two year waiting list, so Monica advises parents to make an application as soon as possible. She also appealed to people to support the excellent work of the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind by making donations, sponsoring a dog, or supporting the many fundraising initiatives run by the organisation.
The programme, which provides assistance dogs to 40 families every year, costs around €1.5 million to run, yet government funding, is expected to run out in 2010.
For further information, contact Elaine Walsh at the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind on 021 4878200.
Alternatively, you can log onto http://www.guide-dogs.ie, for further information.