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
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
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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