Guide dog charity stops providing dogs to children with autism

Tue, Aug 14, 2012, 01:00

ONE OF Ireland’s best-known charities has stopped accepting applications for assistance dogs from families of children with autism.

The Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind (IGDFTB) made the decision after the waiting list grew to five years.

The client services manager at the Cork-based charity, Deirdre Moriarty, said it had insufficient funding to deal with the growing number of families seeking assistance dogs, resulting in the lengthening of waiting lists.

“It was an unacceptable situation. We train children up to the age of 10 to take on the dogs and, with the length of the list, it was resulting in children being over-age before they could receive a dog, so it couldn’t continue,” she said. “It is unfortunate, but we had to make a decision.”

IGDFTB – whose patrons include the former Irish soccer captain Roy Keane – provides the service free of charge. It was the first charity in Europe to provide assistance dogs to children with autism. It costs €38,000 to train each dog. To date, the charity has trained 224 and will train another 41 this year – at a cost of €1.5 million.

The decision to close down the waiting list follows a decrease in the IGDFTB’s income last year of 3 per cent, from €4.2 million to €4 million. Last year, the Department of Education and Skills provided €150,000 towards the Assistance Dogs Programme.

Ms Moriarty said any plan to reopen the list “is not under discussion currently”. She said the waiting list had now been reduced to three years.

She said that, of the 224 trained working assistance dogs, 186 were working at the moment. The waiting list currently stands at 143.

The Cassidy family in Ennis took a cross-Labrador, Demi, to assist their now 11-year-old son, Darragh, who has autism, in October 2009 after being two years on the waiting list.

Darragh’s father, Frank, recalled the family’s first visit to the Guide Dogs Centre in Cork.

“Darragh was very excited and was so joyful around the dogs. It was very emotional,” he said. He added that Demi has had “a very positive impact” on Darragh and the family as a whole.

Darragh’s mother, Angela, said: “In stressful situations, Demi relaxes Darragh. Darragh is non-verbal, but he does seem to have built a connection with Demi. It has been very positive.”

Ms Moriarty said assistance dogs “have saved lives” among the children they serve. “There is no science behind the impact the dogs have on the children, but the primary reason they assist the children is safety.”

She said some children with autism could be “bolters” and the dogs were purpose trained to stop them running off.