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: