It’s been five and a half years since Fiji (now aged 7), a most beautiful golden Labrador/retriever, arrived in our lives. It’s hard for me to imagine that we had hesitated about bringing an Assistance Dog into our lives. The reason, as I think many parents of children with autism might relate to, was the myriad of different strategies we were told about over the years that would make life better for our son Daniel. Many of these did not seem to have had much impact so, as someone who had never owned a dog, I wasn’t too hopeful of the future at that point.
It’s great to be proven wrong. From day one, under the guidance of Eoin, one of the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind trainers, Fiji was a big hit. We went from hunting around supermarkets and hotel lobbies for Daniel, to sitting together as a family for a meal out or cinema visit. Just 18 months later when we moved house, a stressful time for all, Fiji made settling into our new community very easy as we were instantly known and highly visible. New neighbours and passers-by stopped to chat and learn about Daniel and Fiji.
Daniel, who has a twin sister Maria, is now thirteen. He is a very happy gentle boy who has autism, is non-verbal and also has a moderate intellectual disability. He has the most wonderful smile and has great eye contact. He loves being out and about in nature and Fiji has made all of our walks more fun and paces her trot to match that of Daniel’s. Instead of having a tight grip on Daniel’s hand as we walk along the path for fear of him bolting, we can both relax as he holds onto Fiji. Fiji even has a network of her very own as some of the children in Daniel’s school have Assistance Dogs and when families meet up over the summer school holidays so do the dogs.
However, social distancing and lockdown rules have put paid to these get togethers for a while and to much else that Daniel is familiar with like school, swimming, trips to cafes, supermarkets and our local community centre. Daniel has got used to hearing and seeing the words CLOSED and NO ACCESS and has been remarkably resilient. So has Fiji. With Fiji in hand as we walk around, it is easier for Daniel to accept this new normal as we go past favourite places. We don’t dare walk past the swimming pool as that would be heart-breaking for Dan.
Physical distancing is easier too. People can see us coming with Fiji in the middle and make greater efforts to give us space. There are a few exceptions to this, but that’s life. People also make eye contact and smile more than they would if they were just concentrating on their own physical distancing. And this awareness of Daniel is especially important as sometimes Daniel just likes to stretch out his arm fully to feel the breeze or to wave his hands in the air so space is at a premium.
We now have a new routine of morning and afternoon walks to local parks. Even having a fifth resident in our home (Fiji) gives us more diversity in this lockdown as we get used to spending more and more…..and more time with each other!! And did I mention, after being the slowest one to come round to getting an Assistance Dog, that Fiji helps me relax as we can all snuggle up together on the couch.
Behaviour analysts say it takes about three weeks for a new behaviour to take root. As lockdown rules are eventually eased bit by bit, I feel confident that with Fiji’s help, Daniel will be able to transition to the next stage of our new reality. Our family’s world has gone deeper into Daniel’s during this strange time as we have done more nature walks than ever, picked more leaves, thrown more pebbles into the local river and played football in the back garden (while stopping Fiji from bursting the ball). The distance we can travel from our home maybe quite short but our family’s world has got bigger in some ways as we have a new appreciation of that world through Daniel’s eyes. Thank you Dan. Thank you Fiji. Thank you Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind and each and every one of your supporters.
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