The dogs that change lives #3 – Support Dogs

The third story from my 2011 dissertation about the dogs that change lives:

Jenny Dennis & Jarvis – Support Dogs

Jenny Dennis  & Jarvis - Support Dogs

More than 500,000 people in the UK suffer from autism, and over half of those are children aged 16 and under. Although there is no cure, there is a solution that could ease the lives of thousands of families across the country.

Enter Jarvis, a three-year-old yellow Labrador cross Golden Retriever, who for almost two years has given life back to the Dennis family, after being matched to nine-year-old autism sufferer, Isaac, by charity Support Dogs.

Support Dogs is a national charity, which trains dogs to help improve the lives of people with epilepsy, physical disabilities and children with autism.

Isaac’s mum, Jenny Dennis, says: “After hearing about Support Dogs’ launching of its Autism Assistance programme, myself and my husband Phil wondered if this could be a way forward for Isaac.

“We decided to begin the application process with the hope of giving not only Isaac and ourselves a better family life, but also his twin sister, Jessica.”

Autism is a disorder of neural development, distinguished by three main symptoms; impairments in social interaction; impairments in communication; and restricted interests and repetitive behaviour.

“Before we had Jarvis, people had a tendency to stare if Isaac was reacting badly to his surroundings, and as he and Jessica got older, it became harder for her to cope with the responses of passers-by.

“Isaac’s latest thing to do is to growl at people, I can laugh it off, but for a nine-year-old girl, it’s not as easy,” Jenny says.

The family, who live in Heanor, Derbyshire, also found it increasingly difficult to have family outings due to Isaac’s unpredictable behaviour and aversion to busy or noisy environments.

“Like many people with severe autism, Isaac has heightened sensory issues. Too much noise or certain sounds disturb him and he tends to walk with his fingers in his ears or with his headphones on.

“He is also totally dependent upon us as he cannot communicate his needs and feelings verbally, and as a result his behaviour is often very challenging.

“We did on occasions have to resort to the use of a wheelchair as sensory overload meant he would sit on the floor and refuse to move – it made family outings impossible.”

Support Dogs’ Autism Assistance programme trains dogs to help children participate in social activities, increasing their independence and safety, along with providing comfort and reducing stress.

A recent study by the University of Montreal has shown that dogs can help children with developmental disorders by significantly reducing their anxiety and stress levels.

Dr. Sonia Lupien, the study’s author, said: “Our findings showed that the dogs had a clear impact on the children’s stress hormone levels – I have not seen such a dramatic effect before.”

Support Dogs

After interviews, home assessments and acceptance onto the programme, Jenny and Jarvis had their residential training, which involved Jarvis learning to take orders from Jenny instead of his former trainer, and in September 2009, she took him home.

“Jarvis came from Guide Dogs as he was not cut out for guiding, but he was perfect for our son,” Jenny says.

Autism Dogs wear a special blue jacket, which has additional securing points so that a handle can be attached for the child to hold, and a body harness to keep the child fastened to the dog so that they move together as a team.

“Isaac was a little unsure of being too close to Jarvis at first, but he took to being attached instantly. We initially started with short walks in quiet areas and have gradually increased the length of the walks as well as going to different and busier shops.

“Isaac doesn’t look disabled but when he is attached to Jarvis, people understand and recognise that there is a disability. Now, instead of staring, passers-by are more friendly and forthcoming, asking question about Jarvis and petting him.”

Since having an Autism Assistance dog, Jenny, Phil, Jessica and Isaac are now able to go out as a family whether it’s eating out, visiting friends or attending Jessica’s presentations at Brownies.

Jenny says: “We used to have to plan any activities around Isaac’s moods. Normally only one of us would be able to go out as the other would need to stay at home with Isaac, but now we can all go together as he will sit calmly and patiently when attached to Jarvis.

“It’s hard to pinpoint what it is about Jarvis as Isaac can’t communicate with us. I think it’s the safety of being attached to him – he is Isaac’s comforter.”

The difference in Isaac’s behaviour and stress levels is especially evident when a trip to the supermarket is on the cards.

“Isaac hated going to the supermarket as it’s noisy and has shiny floors – he detested everything about it.

“Before, he would refuse to leave the car and after an hour I would give up and go home. Now he jumps out ready to be attached to Jarvis and we go – it’s the little things like that which are now easier,” says Jenny.

“Isaac is definitely getting more used to having Jarvis around. He instigates chase by squealing and taking his headphones off.

“We’ve also noticed Isaac randomly stroking Jarvis, without being prompted, as he walks past him. A few times they have been sitting together quietly with Isaac touching Jarvis’ head gently.

“Having Jarvis has improved family life and we are truly blessed to have him.”