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Assistance dogs: how canine helpers can give people their lives back

July 2, 2016

 

 

Jacob Atkins and Tom - 'I used to run off and hide’

 

Teresa Atkins first noticed something out-of-the-ordinary when she began taking her son to a “mums and tots” group near her home in Northamptonshire. While other children were happy to stay in the main hall and play as their parents chatted, Jacob preferred to escape the hubbub and sit in a quieter side room where the toy trains were stored.

 

When he started nursery the pattern continued, except by now he was point-blank refusing to interact with the rest of his class. In his first year at primary school, he spent most of his time huddled up in corners or hiding under a table. Crowds and loud noises upset him and he lacked the imagination to play like other children.

Teresa is preternaturally good humoured, but it’s impossible for her to keep the weariness from her voice as she recalls what those days were like.

 

“Jacob would hide on a shelf in a supermarket. He would clear a shelf [of food] and lie down. If anyone came to help that would make him curl up even tighter, in an effort to shut them out. Life was stressful.”

In the end, a special educational needs coordinator invited Teresa and her husband Stephen to a meeting at Jacob’s school.

 

“We think we know what this is,” she told them gently. “We think Jacob has Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD).”

It was devastating news. At present ASD has no cure and the Atkinses, like many parents before them, felt their hearts sink as a future scrapbook of all their son’s milestones — university, job, marriage, children — suddenly slipped through their fingers. No drugs have been proved, conclusively, to help with autism and theories about particular diets or therapies still require years of rigorous investigation.

 

But today, contrary to the bleak prognosis given to them by experts, Jacob is thriving. In fact, when I met him at home one afternoon, as he showed me his collection of Michael Morpurgo books, I was struck by just how similar he seemed to any other 10-year-old boy. All thanks to the arrival, in 2009, of a yellow labrador called Tom.

 

Dogs can turn on lights, empty a washing machine, call lifts, carry shopping bags and even extract money from a cashpoint

 

“Although Jacob was statemented in 2007, he didn’t receive an autistic diagnosis until 2009,” says Teresa. “After that, Stephen and I did some research and we came across the website for [the charity] Dogs for the Disabled, which said it provided dogs for children with autism and I thought I could really see that helping Jacob.”

Of all the domesticated animals, dogs seem most attuned to our sensibilities.

 

After the First World War, they were trained as guide dogs for soldiers who had been blinded by mustard gas, and a few decades later, it was realised they could be taught to help the deaf as well.

 

But only recently has it become obvious just how useful dogs can be. They are now being placed with people with cerebral palsy, spina bifida, multiple sclerosis and other conditions that rob an individual of their

independence, and proving so adept at their jobs that they’re taking over much of the work previously done by carers.

 

Properly trained, a dog can pick up dropped items, help with dressing, turn on lights, empty a washing machine, call lifts, carry shopping bags, put a card in a cashpoint machine and even extract the money.

 

They have also been shown to have an incredible calming effect on those with autism.

 

Before the Atkins took delivery of Tom, who was trained from a puppy at the Dogs for the Disabled centre in Banbury, Oxfordshire, one of Jacob’s most nerve-racking traits was to bolt off if he became stressed or anxious. Going anywhere outside the house was fraught with danger because there was always the risk that Jacob would run off into the road without looking. “He has no real perception of danger,” says Teresa.

 

But Tom has been taught to wear a special harness and walk with Jacob, who is attached to the harness with a lead. Tom trots in front, and will automatically sit down if he senses Jacob is about to run off.

 

This hasn’t just made life easier for Teresa, it’s also widened Jacob’s horizons. Last autumn, the family went to the cinema and stayed until the final credits for the first time ever, thanks to the presence of Tom at Jacob’s feet.

“Before, we’d have to leave after 10 minutes,” says Teresa. “But Jacob knew Tom was there and he could get down on the floor and give him a cuddle if he felt anxious. It helped him relax.”

 

The same thing applies to restaurants. And at home, Tom provides a focus for his young owner. Jacob enjoys feeding and grooming him (which simultaneously reminds Jacob to wash himself and brush his own teeth) and Tom is a constant, much-loved companion.

 

When I asked Jacob how he thought he’d changed since Tom came on the scene, he displayed a surprising level of self-reflection – something that research has shown is rare in people with autism.

 

“I used to run off and hide because, well basically, I was stressed about things,” he said. Even without Tom, Jacob would be at the high-functioning end of the autistic spectrum (many people with ASD will never hold a meaningful conversation or read a book) but the Atkinses say the improvement in Jacob’s behaviour since three-year-old Tom arrived has been immeasurable. They intend to keep him as an assistance dog until he is eight or nine — the retirement age for labradors — and hope to then rehouse him as a pet.

 

“Tom is not going to cure Jacob’s autism,” says Teresa. “We’re still going to have stressful times, but he gets over them quicker because of Tom. Jacob can cuddle up to him on the sofa or just wriggle his toes in his fur. It’s made a massive difference.”

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