Saturday, 2 February 2013

Watching a friendship grow

Mikey aged 3
In the summer of 2010 our 3 year old son Mikey was diagnosed with Autism. Our lives were suddenly catapulted into an unknown world. Days became a whirlwind of searching for information and researching various therapies, schools, service providers became the norm for us. We would have gone anywhere and done anything to help our son.

We found the best source of information, guidance, and indeed support and understanding came from those who had gone before us. Parents of children with Autism.

Of particular interest to us was the concept of a child with autism having their own assistance dog.
Families all over the country were singing the praises of these wonderful highly trained animals , that work with the whole family. They are attached to the child on outings for safety reasons to prevent bolting etc and they also have a calming and reassuring affect on the child.There is in many cases a great friendship and bond between the two and this really appealed to us as Mikey was an only child.

I had heard the name Cliona O'Rourke mentioned by many as an amazing trainer and when I discovered she was setting up a new charity in June 2011 I contacted her straight away. The first time we met Cliona I felt as if I had known her all my life and immediately trusted her, we were so delighted when she said she was happy to work with us.

At the time Cliona was starting up a new scheme whereby the puppy is placed from a young age with the family they will eventually be working with. The puppy grows up within the family unit and attends regular training sessions with Cliona. We felt very enthusiastic about this scheme and very excited about the prospect of a cute puppy coming to live with us.
Meeting Ralph
As I said Mikey was an only child, I had had a lot of fertility problems over the years and at almost 40 I was coming to accept that we weren't going to have another baby.... However believe it or not during the few weeks waiting for our puppy I found out I was PREGNANT!!!  We were over the moon it was just the best news ever.

I will always remember when Cliona handed me Ralph. He was just the cutest little ball of fluff and I instantly fell in love with him. He has the sweetest nature and is a real gentle wise soul.

Yes in the beginning he pooped and peed everywhere he even ate my ugg slippers. I remember mornings crying with the misery of cleaning puppy poop with severe morning sickness..
However we got there. These puppies do involve work and commitment, you need to socialise them and bring them out and about with you.

People would ask me "how are Mikey and Ralph getting on?" and "does Mikey love him?" and so on, and the truth was that Mikey never bothered with him, he had zero interest in this hyper little puppy and most of the time if Ralph approached him he would turn away or whinge if Ralph got too friendly. I remember feeling disappointed about this, feeling sad that they wouldn't have the bond I had heard so much about. However I was still hopeful that the attachment would be a help as Mikey was getting bigger and more inclined to run off or drop to the ground in shops.He is remarkably fast and waddling after him with a big bump was no fun...
Ralph & Darragh
To our great joy our son Darragh was born in February 2012, at this stage Ralph was well settled and no trouble, he was lovely with Darragh and they got on great from the start.

In Autumn 2012 Ralph went to Cork for training, I couldn't believe how much I missed his comforting presence around the house.
In December my husband Mick went to Cork for training with Ralph. He phoned me and said he couldn't get over how calm, obedient and grown up Ralph had become.

Ralph all grown up
I felt so proud when Ralph qualified. I felt a great sense of achievement to see my Ralph , my little fluffy pup standing there in his jacket like the professional service dog he now is...

When Ralph came home Mikey straight away started to notice him. Looking back we feel he missed him when he was away. Slowly he started to show Ralph more attention, looking at him and touching him.

Ralph would sit quietly and gently respond but when Mikey had enough and moved away he never followed him it was like he knew when to let him be.

We would sit nudging each other holding our breath watching the interaction. Taking secret photos and videos and watching their bond develop.

Over a short period of time they became real  buddies. Mikey now LOVES Ralph and seeks him out so he can be with him. It is amazing to see Mikey visibly calming in Ralphs company. We feel really blessed. I had wished for this in the early days but due to Mikey's lack of interest I didn't really expect it to happen. Like with all things Autism, you have to allow it to happen slowly and gradually.

Mikey and Ralph had their first attachment this week and I thought I would be really nervous when the day finally arrived.... The strange thing is I wasn't a bit nervous, because in my heart I know they are so comfortable together that it would work, and it did.

The first attachment
Mikey walked alongside Ralph holding at times his handle and at other times a handful of fur as if he was doing it all his life..

As I looked on I felt a sense of relief wash over me. I felt so proud of the two of them and I also felt a great sense of hope and optimism for the adventures ahead of my son Mikey and his Assistance Dog Ralph.

I also felt gratitude to Cliona and all at My Canine Companion for making this possible and also to our wonderful family and friends who have supported and continue to support our fundraising efforts for this wonderful charity.

Thanks so much everyone.

For more info:

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Monday, 5 November 2012

Through the eyes of a parent

As I walk along a tree lined path way in my local forest park I can’t help but notice as the couple ahead of me stroll side by side trudging through the fallen leaves that cover the pathway.

He walks along holding a stick in his left hand while she strolls along beside him glancing over at him every now and then nodding her head in agreement at something he has said or remarked on. She touches his right hand frequently as it hangs down by his side. It’s a simple touch, a gentle reassuring touch, and he responds in kind.
It is hard to believe that they only met seven months ago. Has it really only been only seven months? They met in the car park of a local supermarket and it was love at first sight. He introduced himself and they went for a stroll around the town. They have seldom been apart since that day.

Their love for one another is evident for all to see and it warms my heart as I sit on a bench watching as they stand side by side at the edge of a lake. The setting sun beams their shadows across the lake and onto the trees beyond. It’s a magical setting but they are oblivious to it. Instead he throws a few pebbles across the surface of the lake while she watches on and gets some delight at seeing the local duck population jump for cover as the pebbles drop close to their nesting areas. They are totally immersed in their own company, totally at one with each other. They hear and notice nobody but themselves.

Theirs is a marriage made never to be broken. Their bond is stronger then the toughest cement. Nothing and no-one will break the link that joins them in this life long partnership. Not even his Autism can shake the foundation of their union. In-fact it was his Autism that drew her to him in the first place. She will always be there for him, she will always protect him and keep him safe and if need be she will defend him against all and any threat’s.

He will grow up with her by his side and she will grow old while she watches over him as he develops into a strong and confident man learning to live in a world where his Autism is seen as a hindrance rather then the blessing that his parents know it to be.

  But all thats for the future………

For now, in this magical setting I thank God that my son has been blessed with such a companion. As we walk back to the car I watch as Fudge gently nudges Oisins hand and he responds by rubbing her head with his fingers. No words needed and none given just the reassurance of a boy who knows his best friend is right there by his side. Fudge is his constant companion, confidant, play partner, best friend and yes his assistance dog. He is her best buddy. Together they are a perfect partnership.

As we drive away from the park I remind myself how privileged I am to be a spectator as this fabulous story, of one boy and his dog, unfolds before my eyes.

If you want to know more about Assistance dogs and how they can help check our web site

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Eleanors journey

Owen was diagnosed with Autism aged 4. I knew very little about it so I  joined a local family support group to help me gain a better understanding of what Autism was and the various ways I could deal with it.

Me with Alfie at 9 weeks
I have always had a dog in my life so when another mum told me about a new charity training assistance dogs for children living with Autism I got in touch straight away. I spoke with Cliona on the phone and she made arrangements to come a visit us to meet myself and Owen.
Cliona then came to meet us and get an idea of what we needed for Owen. As I have another old dog bonnie already, cliona thought getting a puppy for training would work better for us and she explained about her puppy training programme and how she felt that it would suit us best. 
Alfie with his brothers Ralph and Cookie 

On July 11th 2011 myself and two other Mums went to collect our pups. Alfie was about 9 weeks old and settled right in with our family. Owen took to Alfie from day one. He just fell in love with Alfie and took on the job of feeding. He also liked to try to brush Alfie's hair.

As Alfie's training progressed he received a training jacket. This meant he could come everywhere with us. This had a huge impact on Owen who became responsive to people asking about Alfie and I began to noticed a big improvement in his socialising almost instantly.
Alfie was very much a part of the family. We met up with other families with pups for training sessions on how to socialise him. We also attended lots of fundraising events where he became very popular.
Alfie the fundraiser
Time flew, as it does in all families and suddenly it was time for Alfie to go to the My Canine Companion training centre in Cork for intensive training and hopefully his graduation into a fully qualified assistance dog.

It was only when he was gone did I actually realise how big a part of our family Alfie had become. We all missed him a lot but it was great to get updates on his progress and to see pictures of him on Facebook.

Then at the beginning of October it was my turn to travel to Cork. I was really anxious that he would recognise me or that he would not make the grade but i needn't have worried.He remembered me and over the next couple of days I trained with Alfie and the rest of my graduation class. We had a couple of days going over our training  and we learned a few new things under Clionas supervision. Alfie passed his training and graduated to a full assistance dog.

Training with Alfie and the rest of the class.
Then it was time to head home. As I drove home I could just imagine the excitement in the house and one very excited little boy waiting for his best friend to arrive.

It was all hugs and kisses for Alfie as he jumped out of the car. Such excitement and happiness. But the work was not over yet.

A few days later Cliona came to visit and to do the first attachment with Owen. I was a little worried but I need not have worried because the attachment went really well. Owen thinks it's him walking the dog and that's just fine. For me it is just so good to see how comfortable they are together. I will admit that it felt really strange walking down a busy street and not holding Owen by the hand. But then that is the reason why I decided to get an assistance dog for Owen. He now has the Independence to walk along a busy street without holding my hand and I have the comfort and piece of mind knowing that he is safe and that he will remain with Alfie no mater what happens.
No hands, Owens first attachment 
It has been an amazing journey. It is hard to believe that the Alfie I see today is the same little ball of fluff I held in my arms way back in 2011. I have met some fantastic families on the way and made many friends. Owen now has his best friend to play with and to keep him safe.

I am delighted that I decided to get Alfie as a pup and it has been amazing to watch as he has grown up and matured into the confidant handsome Assistance dog that he is today.

I have had some marvellous support from Cliona and the other trainers at My Canine Companion and I can not thank them enough for all they have done for me. If you are reading this blog and you are considering an assistance dog for your child then I urge you to contact My Canine Companion today.

Our 2013 Charity calendars are now on sale. Click here to get yours today.


Monday, 15 October 2012

When hope and spontaneity collide.

At the beginning of October Barry and Zarah Doyle were among a number of families who travlled to our training centre in Blarney to complete their assistance dog training. Below Zarah & Barry tells us of their story.

When we received the diagnosis of Autism for our son he was 4 years old. His attention span was non existent and was consumed by his own little world of Thomas the tank engine, aeroplanes and cars. He also would run off at the first chance he got which was very stressful and he became very unpredictable when we were out in public.

 We discovered his love of animals when he first attended preschool. His teacher had a cat and she had noticed that after Luke had spent five minutes around the cat he was far more regulated and could concentrate in class for longer periods of time. We had heard about children on the autism spectrum getting assistance dogs to help tackle this problem. We applied for a dog through other charities however the waiting lists where so long and we became impatient because we could see the benefit of having animals around Luke.

Adorable Toby
We had a sudden burst of spontaneity and went to view a litter of golden retriever puppies in Ballitore Co. Kildare. It quickly became clear to us that we were not walking out of there without one of these absolutely adorable dogs! I think I would have taken them all home with me if I could. Thank god I came to my senses before that happened.
Most of the puppies were running around the garden and one came up to Luke and seemed to take a liking to him, Luke thought this was hilarious and that was our decision made for us, we collected our gorgeous 8 week old puppy two days later. When we got him home we named him Toby. The kids were besotted with him.
 I started thinking about how we were going to train him and asked a few people I knew who had already had an assistance dog if they knew anybody that could train a puppy to become a qualified assistance dog.
I was given Cliona Rourke's contact details. Cliona was well know in the world of assistance dog training. Cliona was in the process of setting up her own charity and she came up to see us and explained all about a new charity and what she hoped to achieve. Talk about meant to be!!

Cliona thought Toby had an ideal temperament to become an assistance dog and started us on a puppy socialising programme. Toby received a "puppy in training" jacket. This meant we could bring him everywhere with us, shopping, school runs, relatives homes everywhere we went he went. We had a lot of stuff to learn ourselves and we attended group training classes with other parent/puppies in the programme.  
We watched him grow from a clumsy puppy into a very handsome good natured adult. Toby is absolutely part of the family, it is such a relief to have a dog that Luke is so familiar with and that such a strong bond has already been established.

Toby is one of the family

Training with Toby in Cork

At 14 months he went to Cork for his full assistance dog training. His absence left a big hole in our family but we knew that when he returned he would be a fully trained assistance dog. As Toby's training was coming to an end we also travelled to Cork to be trained. It was so good to see Toby again and he was so happy to see us.

Because we had been on the puppy training programme a lot of what were taught in Cork was stuff we already knew but it was great to be able to practise with Cliona and the other trainers. Toby looked so proud in his new jacket as we walked around Cork with the other families in the class. At the end of a very long couple of days Toby was graduated to a full assistance dog and we headed home to Kildare.

The first attachment
We now have a fully trained assistance dog but one hurdle remained; The attachment!! As we waited for Cliona to call to our house we wondered how the attachment would go. Luke and Toby are best friends, they have grown up together, but how would Luke react to being tethered to Toby? We soon got our answer.

Only back from training in Cork a few days and Cliona and Linda arrived. Cliona likes to do the attachment in the area where the family live so that the child is in familiar surroundings and not distracted. We need not have worried, the attachment went perfectly. It was amazing to watch as Barry held the lead from behind and Luke and Toby strolled along like any normal little boy with his dog.

This has been an amazing journey for us as a family. My Canine Companion is not just another assistance dog charity, it is a lot more then that. It is like a big social network of people. We all have one thing in common; we live and deal with Autism on a daily basis and we have turned to this wonderful charity to help us in that fight through the assistance of wonderful dogs such as Toby.

My Canine Companion has 13 fully trained assistance dogs partnered with families across Ireland. If you would like to know more about our Charity and the service we provide please visit our website  


Sunday, 2 September 2012

To Infinity and Beyond

Didn't know if I would even get to write this blog post this weekend at all after all the delays yesterday.

After getting up at 7am, waking up my husband and son Ryan, my dad and friend Fiona arrived and we all left for the Skydive centre an hour away.

Nerves were ok, more excitement than nerves. Get to the skydive centre after what seemed like forever, and nerves kicked in a bit. Got to meet the rest of the MCC crew including Aud and her hubby Joe. I have known Aud online for several years but never meeting her before then. There were a few of the MCC dogs around as well as loads of kids.

We all went in to the reception together and signed up and we were given the forms to fill in. I don’t think I've signed my name so many times on one form before!! I think the form said SKYDIVING CAN RESULT IN DEATH OR SERIOUS INJURY and YOU ARE NOT COVERED BY ANY INSURANCE about 10 times!! We wearily signed them and went back outside to watch the first divers. It was a mild day but very windy, which we later found out wasn't good. The first divers who were probably student divers took off, 8 in a plane and we watched as they seemed VERY far away.... ehhhh are we sure we want to do this??? It only served to make the blood pump faster...we all wanted to just get up there!!

 So we waited, and waited......eventually 4 of our names were called, I wasn’t one of them, we all went outside to watch as Eleanor B got into her plane and off she went! We couldn’t figure out which dot she was until she landed!! She was smiling ear to ear when she got over to us!! Couldn’t be that bad then, could it??
Eleanor with Cliona after her dive
Next was the other 3, and by this stage it had gotten really windy, so off they went in the tiny plane, and about 10 mins later we heard an announcement that the weather had changed too much and it was too dangerous to dive and they just brought back the plane without letting anyone jump....bummer, but I suppose its better to be bored waiting than to do something too dangerous. Jumping out of the plane is dangerous enough!!

 We all waited till about 6 when Paul the main guy there told us the rain was coming and the wind was just getting worse so to just come back the next day if we could. So a little tired and disheartened we all headed our separate ways.

Sunday morning and the alarm went off at 8. I took a peek out the window...No wind!! Bits a blue sky...looking good!
Rang the dive centre around 9am and they advised to wait till lunch time as it was raining there, damn it, that didn’t sound good. We made our way out there anyway in the highest of hopes. There were lots of people there again today, but we didn’t have to sign the forms again and just had to wait, the sun was shining by about 1pm and our hopes were lifted, there was hardly any wind either!! Then we were told we would be what they called load 7!  It would be about another hour, in that time they let Andrea’s husband Lee go up alone, and we got to watch as Andrea nearly lost her life worrying about Lee, who didn’t have a bother on him, he was as cool as a cucumber.
Lee the cool dude
 We all watched in horror as we could actually see him free falling...they were going soooo fast...oh sweet jebus that’s going to be us I thought as I watched him tumble toward earth....When he landed we could see him Hi5 his instructor, true skydiver style! Andrea will get great mileage out of teasing him about his Hi5ing skydiving buddies!!

Painting Auds face
 We sat around waiting our turn getting some photos of the gang with Shannon the assistance dog. My husband Peter came up with the bright idea of me face painting the divers including me as dogs!! – I’m a face painter and had my kit in the boot of the car. I had finished painting Aud's face when my name was called out to go get set up...eeeek...
I ran into the hangar and met Tony my instructor and he got my suit on and I put my MCC t-shirt over it and he rigged up the harness. I was almost set to go, getting excited now! Once ready I went back outside to paint Eleanor’s face and then painted my own. Then Aud and Eleanor were called to get their suits along with Joy. I was getting worried I was going to be going on my own after thinking I was going up with the other 3 all day, but thank god my instructor was just over eager to get me ready early and I would be jumping with the other three girls.
Me with Ellie, Joy and Aud just before our jump
Tony called me back in to give me a little bit of instruction and to tighten everything. I was really relieved when he said he would run through it all when we were in the plane again cos it all went in one ear and out the other! My husband had organised a DVD and photos, which were really worth it, so while we were waiting to board, the camera guy was filming us...its getting real now!!

 Then the plane arrived at the gate and we were called over the intercom. As soon as we were in the plane and the door closed, I could feel the butterflies, mixture of nerves and excitement!! Everyone was so calm it was kind of surreal!!

 Watching out the window and Tony tells me we are at 5000 feet and briefly runs through my instructions again, having to shout over the loud engine and wind noises! He explained I would be diving second after Aud. I had to remember to keep my head up was all that was running through my head...we were nearly there!!
You don't jump out you fall out!
All of a sudden Tony shouted "DOOR"!! And the door was slid open....HOLY CRAP!!!! Within seconds I could see Aud falling out the door, that’s the only way to describe it; they don’t jump, they just fall out!

Then it was my turn, I don’t think I was nervous now, I was just looking forward to getting to the ground!! Tony shuffled across the floor with me strapped to his lap, told me to put my head and legs back and ...WOOOOOOSSSSSSSHHHHHHH

 Holding tight to the harness, the rumble of the air past my ears was like nothing I’ve ever heard before. I could feel the speed, but it doesn’t feel like falling. It’s actually an indescribable feeling. Tony tapped me on the head to let me know I could let go of the harness and put my arms out, I could see the camera guy on front of me and I knew I was smiling from ear to ear and gave him the thumbs up, well I think I did, with the velocity it might not have looked like I was! The loud rumbling continued forever, then I got a little frightened when the pressure on my chest made it hard for me to breathe and I was probably panicking a little then. You couldn't see anything but blue and white at this stage we were too far away from the ground and there were clouds beneath us so there was nothing to see below us.
Then just as we reached the clouds I could feel us slowing down, at first I thought I was imagining it, I thought it was the clouds cushioning us! No, it was just the parachute. We couldn't see a thing while we were in the cloud, was like a really heavy fog, for those few minutes it felt like myself and Tony were the only ones in the sky!


Then we found a gap in the cloud and headed out. He showed me Dublin in the distance and showed me how to make the parachute move around and twirl around. It was amazing, just gliding down; I could just see the dive centre coming up and as we got closer I could see my husbands blue t-shirt waving...

Then it hit me! I had just done a skydive!! I had actually jumped out of a plane at 10,000 feet!!!

Coming in to land
 We landed perfectly and made our way across the field back to the hanger. My son Ryan ran to hug me followed closely by my husband Peter. The families of the other girls also came running over to greet them. We were all speechless! We couldn’t describe what had just happened, it was just amazing. My parents had just arrived as we were landing along with my Granddad and my brother who brought my niece Katelynn with him, the very reason for me doing the jump in the first place.

We each got our cert’s. and a few more photos for the road.
After 2 days and a lot of laughs and new friends, it was all over. We all packed up our gear and headed off with our heads still in the clouds over Offaly somewhere!!

It was an amazing experience and one I would defiantly do again, I was so happy to do something for My Canine Companion, and even happier to spend the weekend with some amazing people!! Hopefully will meet them again soon!!

To Infinity and Beyond!!!!

Friday, 31 August 2012

Death defying jump for MCC, Anne tells us why!

Anne Hamilton Black
"Are you mad" has been the most common reply I get when I tell them what I am doing far I haven’t really seen what they have been fussed about. Some friends have done sky dives in Oz or New Zealand while travelling and not too many have done them in Ireland or for charity, so I suppose it might seem somewhat crazy to consider jumping out of a plane and hurtling towards earth at around 140mph.....hmmm did I really think this through??


After I injured myself just before the mini marathon last year and was unable to partake, I’ve been looking for a way to do some sort of fundraising for an Autism related cause, so when I heard the idea of a skydive, I think I may have been one of the first to say I would do it. It’s a coincidence that my niece Katelynns dog Rosie is off with My Canine Companion at the moment doing her training. Katelynn is a very important part of my life and Rosie is now a very important part of hers, so it makes scene for me to do something to help another child get the same opportunity as Katelynn.

I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to go about getting enough sponsorship together to be able to do the jump, it seemed like an awful lot at the start, and knowing how stuck people are at the moment, it seemed quite daunting to go around asking, so I was delighted when they set up the iDonate page so I didn’t have to go around collecting cash which I knew would be hard. I have really been overwhelmed by the support I’ve received from friends and family sponsoring me for the event, I think people are becoming more aware of Autism and how a little bit of help and acceptance from everyone can change an Autistic person’s life for the better.

Anne & Katelynn 
Needless to say, as I am a very accident prone person, when I told my close family and friends I was doing the jump their first reaction was NOOOOO, we will have to wrap you in bubble wrap! Considering I fell down the stairs in the cinema last year and damaged my ankle, broke my toe putting my knickers on, broke my coccyx ice skating, cracked my chin and broke my two front teeth on my hen night.....I’m not surprised my husband is looking for my life assurance policy tonight!


Just about to set my alarm for 6.30, enough time to wake up properly and get ready, I'll have some family and friends there as a support which will be nice, my little boy Ryan wants to come on the dive with me, not just watch!lol

I’m not quite nervous yet, still a little excited I think, I’ve been so busy this week that when people asked me if I was nervous I was being honest when I answered no, cos I hadn’t really had time to think about it too much,, tomorrow I'm sure will be a different story. I don’t have a fear of heights, I wonder will I develop one tomorrow? Imagine that in a few years, "Anne why are you afraid of heights? - oh someone tried to push me out of a plane once!"

I’m looking forward to meeting my fellow jumpers tomorrow; it will be nice to have a bit of company. I generally a bit of an adrenaline junkie, and I love doing dangerous things, but this is a bit more than dangerous....

"If you haven’t got any charity in your heart, you have the worst kind of heart trouble" - Bob Hope

Looks like I'll be jumping out of a plane tomorrow so...and its going to be Legen....wait for it.... Dary!!! Just a few hours left before we suit up ladies and of course Gents!!!
Read Annes after jump update tomorrow evening along with pictures.