A golden Retriever named Koda has brought calm and happiness to teenager Charlotte Bratu-Breen. Charlotte had a tough time coping with the pressures of living with autism until Koda came along. During her childhood, stress or noisy environments, such as shops, could trigger an overload of her senses and cause Charlotte to experience "a meltdown" which involved her throwing herself helplessly on to the ground, said her father, John Breen (59).
Charlotte (13) also has epilepsy and a learning disability. Her autism meant it could sometimes be difficult to prevent her running off when outside as well as causing other difficulties, said her father.
"I was sometimes at my wits' end," he said.
But the lives of Charlotte and parents John and Natalia were transformed last year when they received Koda, a highly trained two-year-old dog from the charity Autism Assistance Dogs Ireland.
Autism assistance dogs are trained to keep a child safe and to help reduce anxiety and stress for the child which also benefits the whole family.
The dog's special training supports a child in learning coping mechanisms that last a lifetime.
"From the day Charlotte got her, Koda has been so kind and gentle. It's like Koda really understands her. Koda can sense when Charlotte is starting to feel anxious and she will go to Charlotte and nuzzle her so that she hugs her and helps her disengage from what's going on in her head," said John.
Leaving their home in Ballyboden in Dublin was a challenge in the past but now Koda accompanies Charlotte everywhere, which enables them to have trips to shops, cinemas, and restaurants which would have been considered too difficult in the past.
"Koda has enabled us to travel on buses and trains which would not have been possible before," John said.
When Koda is ''working'' she wears a jacket with a sign telling the public not to pet her. John holds a lead attached to her collar. Charlotte holds a second lead which is attached to Koda's jacket. There is a third lead which is attached to a waistband worn by Charlotte which is attached to Koda's jacket.
This enables them to walk safely on busy paths and to cross the road safely. Koda responds to up to 30 voice commands. These include knowing to turn left or right and to stop at kerbs. Charlotte is beginning to give Koda some of these commands.
"When Koda wears her jacket, she is working. When the jacket is off, she relaxes. At the beach, she doesn't wear the jacket and she is happy to chase a tennis ball," he said.
"Koda has made such a difference in our lives. She has allowed us to have something like a normal life."
Just as important, she is a loyal and loving friend to Charlotte, he added.
"Koda has allowed us to have a life we couldn't have before. Autism Assistance Dogs Ireland has made it happen. There are no words to describe how grateful we are," he said.
Autism Assistance Dogs Ireland is one of four charities to benefit from Woodie's sixth annual 'Heroes' fundraising campaign which begins today and lasts until August 16. Woodie's colleagues and customers nationwide are invited to make donations in their local stores.
The other charities to benefit this year are Down Syndrome Ireland, Cystic Fibrosis Ireland, and ISPCC Childline.
Donors are invited to get involved in an attempt to walk a combined distance of 384,400km, which is the distance from the earth to the moon, by contributing ''steps''' in-store or online at www.idonate.ie/Woodies2020.