Assistance dog Hunter

29th May 2020 • Emma Cooper

Some might think it’s odd to train your own assistance dog. I mean, surely the point of having an assistance dog is to make an already difficult life easier? And we all know there is nothing harder than training a puppy.

So, yes, it might seem illogical. Or perhaps bewildering to those not within what I call the ‘inner circle’ to think, why would a single, self-employed mum  with children with disabilities who she cares for, who struggles with home education and childcare, oh, and who is writing a safeguarding book, get a puppy on top of all of that? I guess this is the one time, or one of the rare times, where as an autistic person, I’m seeing the much bigger picture.

Safeguarding my daughter’s future

I’m not only drawing on my own experiences as a teen, but also on the support that I’ve been giving young teen girls who are autistic, or on the autistic pathway. The mentoring I’ve given to support them through some of their darkest times has shown to me why, actually, I now need to put in the hard work. Before my youngest daughter becomes a teenager, I need to use this time, however busy I am, as an opportunity to lay a good foundation to ensure that when she’s a teen, she has that assistance she needs in the form of an assistance dog.

My youngest daughter has always been fascinated with dogs. Before she could talk, she would woof that she loved dogs and Slinky Dog from Toy Story has always been an absolute favourite. Then I learnt more about the wider assistance dog services. I mean, all I used to know about was guide dogs, or maybe medical detection dogs or police sniffer dogs. But in the last 12 years of advocacy, and even more so in the last two or three years where I’ve been working with all different types of disabilities, I’ve learnt that it’s not just for the physical disabilities that an assistance animal can help.

I’ve met people from all over the country and all over the world who have assistance animals, and in particular, assistance dogs. I have also met a lot who are on waiting lists for Dogs for Autism. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, a lot of their funding has collapsed. I still support Dogs for Autism. I think they do incredible things. But for me, the need was a little bit more pressing and it can take up to two years to train an assistance dog. My daughter is 12. And I was hoping to have an assistance dog and placed her by the time she was 13. So, what did I do next? I thought, I know, I’ll get a working dog breed. And I’ll train them up by myself. That sounds quite grand and, really, it’s not by myself at all. Yes, sure, I’m doing all the sleepless nights and the stuff in the day, but there is support available and Dogs for Autism have been on the end of the phone for me when I needed them.

Dr Julia Leatherhead has been at the other end of numerous text messages, offering tips and support. We have weekly public access training, by an incredible public access dog trainer Daniele Gardener, which of course due to lockdown is via Zoom at the moment.

Putting the work in

I’m not afraid to say that it’s been really tough. I expected it to be hard work. I was told it would be like having a baby again and being up all night, which in some cases it certainly has, for the first four days at least. But the improvements I’ve seen have already helped and not just in the way I expected. Obviously, our puppy is only 13 weeks old. Incredibly jumpy, a little bit nippy, but nothing which isn’t normal for a dog that age. Our dog is a lab collie cross – I don’t know if anyone knows about labs and collies, but labs tend to enjoy their food and collies are really high octane. They are busy, workaholic dogs which mean that they’re up early in the morning and they go to bed late at night. Great for a working dog. Not so great for a single mum, but we’re getting there. The upside is collies are incredibly bright. At only 13 weeks old, Hunter, our assistance dog in training, is able to sit and lay down. And he’s able to leave it. Not bad, really, considering that we’ve only had him here for around about a week and a half to two weeks now. He’s making incredible progress and we’ve got a way to go but at the moment, I am teaching him to give feedback when he sees someone he knows as opposed to a stranger.

A brain wave

When I was walking the dog, I noticed that he was excited to see strangers ,but just wagged his tail, yet when he saw someone he knew (a neighbour or another household member) he wagged his tail and also made a crying sound.

 And I thought, wow, he has great human facial recognition. That’s really useful and although he’s doing it himself instinctively, I wondered if I could enhance that with rewards? See, many autistic people are vulnerable as we have prosopagnosia which is difficultly recognising people we know. We often rely on what someone wears, their hair style and uniforms to recognise them. So we often compensate for this by pretending we know someone, even if we aren’t sure we do, because, after all, it’s OUR ‘problem.’ The sad reality of this is that if someone wanted to pretend to know us and confuse us, they could easily do so. This can make autistic adults and young people very vulnerable when they are out without a chaperone, so what if I could train my dog to do this for us?

If we could train dogs to recognise and sound out when it’s someone the handler knows and trusts, we could help safeguard autistic people young and old by ensuring they listen to the dog’s feedback when approached by people outside.

Being a responsible owner

There’s no issue with people training their own assistance dogs. At the minute, anybody can train their own assistance dog. First, we wanted to go down the private training. And we’re going down the private public access route, because I want to know that this dog is absolutely safe and responsible in every public access area possible. On top of that, you have to make sure you’ve got the right insurance and pet insurance is not the cheapest of things.

But for a working dog, you can’t get pet insurance because they’re not covered. They’re a working dog, they’re not a pet. And that’s been quite hard for us on an emotional and logical level to understand. On top of that, you then have to have public liability insurance, which isn’t as expensive as the vet insurance, which I assumed would be the other way around.

The hardest bit at the minute is trying to socialise them. Obviously we’re locked down, and by now I should be taking him on trains or buses. I should be able to go up to other dog owners and speak to them a bit more. But actually the social distancing, as these public access trainers said, isn’t always a bad thing because we don’t really want an assistance dog to be jumping over another dog excitedly when he sees them. What if I was working in an office with my daughter with me and somebody had a guide dog, or there was a police dog? We have to travel a lot with my work. What if we were at the airport and there was a drug sniffer dog, and he decides to playfully lick it, or hump it like the cushion at home? We don’t want that. So, lockdown is proving perfect opportunity because he’s able to be taken past other dogs in the street, but it’s more of a friendly acknowledgement than a ‘hello, how are you?’

I guess for anyone reading who is considering this; I wouldn’t change it for the world. I know the short term plan looks insane, but the long term plan will be an absolute lifesaver. And I really want to highlight the word lifesaver.

Carly x