Autistic Pupils Help to Train Assistance Dogs

Assistance Dogs Australia has launched a pioneering project to involve autistic school pupils in the training of their dogs.

The organisation, which receives support from Ceva, has trialled the scheme in Heathcote High School, on the outskirts of Sydney, where a group of young people have taken part in the project.

Heathcote is a mainstream school but 14 of its pupils, who join special classes for autistic children, have helped with the programme. This involves working with dogs on a number of exercises including obstacle courses and performing various tasks in the classroom. As Marie Fillis, a specialist teacher in the autism class at Heathcote, explains: “It helps them build relationships with the animals as well as other people in the process.”

Founded in 1996, Assistance Dogs Australia trains and places dogs with Australians who have physical disabilities, autism or suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome, as well as providing a range of services to these individuals and their families.

The dogs are placed free of charge with clients across the country. It takes two years to train a puppy and costs over AUD 40,000 (USD 27,500) to provide a qualified assistance dog. This covers all training, food, veterinary treatment, kennelling costs and placement with a client. Shortage of funds means there is currently a long waiting list for dogs.

Assistance Dogs Australia’s occupational therapist, Claire Dickson, who has been running the sessions at Heathcote School said:

The major goals that stood out in each student’s individual education plan was building confidence and self-esteem and also improving social skills, so these were the areas that we targeted.

Year 9 student, Cameron, who took part in the programme, said: “It’s great to teach the dogs skills, it’s friendly, it’s fun and the dogs are very loyal.”

The shortage of dogs was highlighted by Assistance Dogs Australia learning and support officer, Aly Cole, who joined the Heathcote sessions. “The pupils just came to life when they came in and saw the dogs,” she said. “To be able to have dogs readily available around Australia would be fantastic because many of these kids are really on the margins, segregated from their peers in the mainstream schools, and it would be a major benefit to them if they had access to more dogs.”

In 2016, Ceva Australia sponsored assistance dog Lola. For the past two years she has served as an assistance dog at North Gosford Learning Centre, working alongside young people who face a series of challenges. The company has also recently sponsored a young puppy, Thor, who will soon start his training programme with Assistance Dogs Australia.

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