Over the next few weeks we are going to introduce you to some people who are autistic, have an autistic child, family member and their dogs. Not all the dogs are going to be assistance dogs. Some are just very loved family members and pets.
Dogs work in mysterious ways, I think it’s the joy, unconditional deep love and compassion they share as they bring comfort as therapy dogs, assistance dogs, companions, and as part of our families. That is my perception. I think everyone will have their own understanding of what their dogs mean to them.
There will be two directions of what is coming. The family dog who lives with autism in their family. The joy that dog brings. The connection they have, the smiles, love and acceptance without any judgement. A four legged friend who listens. The unconditional love that is present.
The assistance dog who is being specifically trained to assist an autistic person.
Seeing first-hand accounts of how they all get on, how much the dog brings to a family, how someone made the decision to get and train an assistance dog, how complicated it can be, heart-warming, frustrating and the magic that emerges when you go the distance, stay with the hard work, connect on a deep level bringing you a four legged support that unlocks a door to greater freedom in an often hard to understand and cope in world.
Here is a wonderful and beautifully written account of how it is for Jade and Archie the assistance dog. It is a truthful and heart-warming insight of how it was and is for her.
By Tess Eagle Swan
Autism and Dogs – Archibald, the assistance dog
2020 for many, including myself, was a challenging year not even including the global pandemic. In May 2020, I finally got my autism diagnosis after trying to get one for almost ten years. I then began a learning journey.
During this time, I discovered the ‘Actually Autistic’ community and the online community of assistance dog handlers. I soon realised that an assistance dog might be an option for me. I have quite a lot going on regarding disabilities, health and mental health. I am autistic, dyslexic and dyspraxia; I have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression, and problems with my kidneys and chronic pelvic pain. I am also waiting for a diagnosis of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.
My fiancé and I hadn’t planned to get a dog for a few more years, but he eventually changed his mind and said to could start looking at puppies.
We live in an apartment in London (without a garden), so a large dog such as a Golden Retriever or a Labrador wasn’t an option for us even though they have high success rates as an assistance dog.
I knew whatever breed we got it had to be a gundog, and I started looking at English Cocker Spaniels (show type). It seemed like the perfect breed as they’re active and are very happy to have a cosy day cuddling; they’re loyal, emotionally intelligent and fast learners.
I found a breeder online who had two 11-week puppies left, by the time we were able to go and visit there was only one puppy left. He was confident and cheeky (also the one in the picture who had caught my eye). We brought him home the same day.
The first couple of months were very challenging. I worked from home and raised a puppy plus I had the puppy blues! No amount of reading (I should probably mention dogs are my special interest and I’ve been reading dog encyclopaedias since I was a child) could have prepared me.
It was hard; there were tears, poo explosions, always being attacked by a land shark, sleepless nights and what seemed to be endless bathing, the apartment smelt like disinfectant all the time, and it felt as if the washing machine was on 24/7.
I have built such a strong bond with my puppy Archie, which is crucial in building a healthy assistance dog and handler team. I know I can rely on, and he knows he can depend on me too.
As an English Cocker Spaniel, he is a needy dog he follows me everywhere; he even sleeps on my feet while I’m trying to make dinner! He is six and a half months old now and is making significant progress with his training.
Due to lockdown, we haven’t done many puppy classes, but I make time every day to train, play and provide him with enrichment. We started working with a brilliant assistance dog trainer called Laura Wild, who runs Wild Spirit Dog Training, who has supported me virtually in owner training Archie.
We still have a long way to go until he is fully trained, but he has made such progress with learning tasks to mitigate my disabilities.
He is learning a range of tasks such as deep pressure therapy (DTP), self-harm interruption and retrieving my phone in an emergency (so that I can call for help).
Once he is fully trained, he will be a multi-purpose assistance dog (for autism, PTSD and medical response). I try to document our journey together on Instagram (@archietheassistancedog). Having Archie has given confidence and security. I can navigate social situations and situations that cause me high anxiety in a much better way, where I previously would have struggled.
Due to my fiancé’s job, I spend long periods alone, Archie gives me more independence, keeps me safe and comforts me when I need it. Archie gives me routine, makes sure I wake up early, makes sure I take regular breaks when I am working, and go outside every day.
Having an assistance dog is not easy, nor is it always fun.
When it is sick, you have to take care of that dog, go out for walks in the cold and rain, staff in shops denying you access because you ‘don’t look disabled enough’ and a massive time commitment regarding training.
Before I got Archie, I worked full time and was at university part-time studying my fourth degree. Within two weeks of having Archie, I dropped out of my degree to commit more time to raise him. I’ve had Team’s meetings with commissioners within local government and the NHS while Archie was flinging a pee pad around the same room, puppies are hard.
An assistance dog isn’t for everyone, but if you think an assistance dog is a right step for you, they can be life-changing. Archie has changed my life, he is full of love, and I adore him.
By Jade Pitchford-Waters