Almost 4 years have passed since Etta, our son Philip’s Autism Assistance Dog Guide, became part of our family. Hardly a day goes by without one of us saying “how did we ever live without Etta”. Etta is a beautiful, 5-year old female brindle Lab. She has a very patient and gentle personality, a perfect complement to our son.
Philip, who is now 13, is on the severe end of the Autism Spectrum. He is non-verbal and has been known as a runner and climber, along with other behaviours. We first heard about Autism Assistance Dog Guides in 2007 through information on the internet and elsewhere and decided that this could be of real benefit for Philip’s safety.
Our research led us to Dog Guides Canada in Oakville, Ontario, a non-profit organization funded by the Lion’s Foundation of Canada. For many years this organization has been breeding, training and providing Dog Guides for various programmes. The oldest and best-known of these programmes is the vision impaired Dog Guides or “seeing eye dogs”. We also found that there were other programmes for persons with hearing impairments, seizures and in need of mobility assistance. Most importantly, we found that Dog Guides Canada was starting a new program for individuals with Autism. We submitted an application and waited for a few months. We were then visited by a representative who interviewed us and agreed that Philip would be a good candidate to receive the support of a Dog Guide.
After several more months of waiting, we were called to attend a one week residential training programme in mid-January 2010 at a training centre in Oakville. Five couples from Ottawa, Montreal, New Brunswick and the Greater Toronto Area attended. We were the first “class” for the new Autism Dog Guide Programme. During this busy week we were introduced to our dogs, given training in handling and care and went on various outings with our dogs on public transportation, to malls, grocery stores, restaurants and parks. At the end of the week, both owners and dogs were trained and we left for home. In our case, we returned home to Ottawa by VIA Rail with Etta. She quickly settled in and became a true part of our family.
It should be mentioned that Etta came to us fully trained. She stayed with a foster family for her first year, receiving some basic training, followed by 6 months of intensive training at Dog Guides Canada. In fact, the week we spent in Oakville was more to train us than Etta.
What is Etta’s role? Basically, she is there to help keep Philip safe when away from home. She goes with him to school and whenever he is out in the community shopping, eating at a restaurant or just going for a walk. She also helps with socialization. Having Etta has made our lives, and Philip’s, much easier.
More information can be found at Canada Dog Guides Web site at www.dogguides.com.
Written by Robert Shalka