'Since we got Quelda, our assistance dog for our son Conor, we do everything as a family'
Assistance dog Quelda has opened up the world for the O'Neills and their son Conor, who was diagnosed with autism aged two, writes Niamh Kane
Every parent wants their child to have the best start in life, and a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can be frightening and life-changing. So when Trish O'Neill (38) and husband Eoin (42) had their first child, Conor (now aged seven), diagnosed with autism at two-and-a-half years of age, they knew they would have to overcome many challenges.
Closed doors and waiting lists, even finding a school for Conor became a battle because of his condition. But through it all his parents never stopped fighting to make Conor's world a better place.
His mum Trish explains: "Autism makes Conor present with stimming (self-stimulatory behaviour) that includes jumping up and down and flapping his hands, and sometimes verbally stimming too.
"But one of our biggest concerns for Conor was his well-being when we were outside. He has no sense of danger, so for his own safety we believed an assistance dog would be the best chance for meeting his needs. And in 2017, we decided to apply for one from Irish Guide Dogs [IGD]."
Little did they know how much a working dog would soon change all their lives.
Now Trish, Eoin and their three children, Conor, Aoibhinn (4) and Ben (2) from Co Cork no longer stress about going out with Conor and are instead able to enjoy family days out, going for walks and doing everyday tasks that most people do without thinking - and it's all thanks to a black lab called Quelda.
Trish recalls the first time the family saw Quelda. "Irish Guide Dogs pulled up to the house and out popped this black Labrador Retriever, she just ambled into the house and sat down. She loved the kids, but when we went for a walk, that's when we knew it was meant to be," says Trish.
"Quelda makes a huge impact in keeping Conor safe in public spaces. There is a handle which gives him the responsibility of walking his dog and a strap around his waist connected to the harness of Quelda. So if Conor does bolt, the strap gives us extra time to catch him and keep him out of harm's way."
Quelda proved herself invaluable on her first day, when along their walk they were coming close to a nearby playground and Conor bolted. The black lab stood firm, allowing him to be secured by the attachment line around his waist. Trish reflects: "That was day one of our new life."
Now that Quelda had proven to be the perfect match for Conor, Trish first had to attend residential training with IGD for five days before Quelda joined her new family.
"The first two days I spent on site, training with three fellow classmates, all parents to children with autism, and their working dogs.
"On the third and fourth day we were all brought into the city to navigate obstacles in real life with guidance from our instructor.
"We learned how to let others go ahead when hopping on a bus and how to educate people who may come over to pet the canine, which in turn could stress Conor out or distract Quelda from her priority, Conor," explains Trish.
While most people are aware of guide dogs for helping people who are visually impaired, not everyone knows the term 'assistance dog'. It's a common name for service dogs trained to do more than one task which helps lighten the effects of a person living with a condition including sight, epilepsy and autism, to name a few. Trish praises the majority of parents for being good at explaining to their children the difference between a working dog and a pet and why they can't approach her.
"It's more the older generation that might pass and pat Quelda on the head, more instinctively, not realising that she is an assistance dog. But I'm quite happy to educate those that don't realise the difference and find them very receptive and respectful once I do," she adds.
Trish has nothing but praise for IGD as she got a glimpse firsthand of all the hard work that goes into training an assistance dog. And once Trish's own training was completed, she got to take Quelda home to Conor and the rest of the family.
"The first attachment walk was tough." Trish recalls. "Conor lay down on the ground crying, not being able to communicate his feelings - he got very frustrated. Irish Guide Dogs were eager to get back out for another attachment walk that afternoon."
Trish initially didn't share the same enthusiasm given the outcome of the first walk but they persevered. Now, seven months later, they are going into town with Quelda as a family. Previous to Quelda's arrival they would separate on the weekends. Eoin might bring Aoibhinn and Ben off while Trish would do something with Conor.
Trish says they keep going from strength to strength. She found a school for Conor in Mallow. He was quite upset after his last school couldn't keep teaching him due to lack of resources and training. He was lonely and couldn't sleep for months. Now at Scoil Aonghusa, they focus on his abilities and not lack thereof. A recent parent-teacher meeting nearly brought Trish to tears when she was told how well her child was doing there.
"He became this new bright-eyed child. He lights up in his uniform. People who came to our home would also remark on how calm Conor had become only months after Quelda's arrival."
Things are finally coming together. Conor has a sense of belonging and he looks forward to weekends now as he knows they will all be doing something together. "Having a child with autism, everything's a plan." Trish says. But it's less stressful now with their new checklist - "keys, wallet, Quelda, check."
When I ask her what's next for them, she replies with ease.
"The sky's the limit but right now we're working up to visiting the Christmas market in the city centre. It will be a first for Conor to see all the Christmas lights and stalls. Before, if someone had asked if we were headed to it, the answer would have been a resounding 'no'. But with the support of Irish Guide Dogs we don't feel like we're on our own trying to figure it all out. They have given us the confidence to say 'yes'."
"We're even considering going on holiday together to mark my 40th birthday in two years, which we would never have done before Quelda came into our lives."
And Trish is not the only one the black lab has won over. Her husband Eoin loves the dog because he can confidently take care of all three children by himself. Which means Trish can pop out and take time to herself if needs be and vice versa. They all take care of Quelda, she gets lots of play and daily maintenance walks and Conor will have an attachment walk after school.
Trish says that the Irish Guide Dogs have a hand-back option as assistance dogs usually retire around the 10-year mark. But the O'Neills already have a retirement plan for Quelda - she's staying firmly within the family and it's easy to understand why.
The therapeutic value of Quelda appears to have affected them all, with Trish swearing that the dog just knows when she's had a rough day and will saunter in and put her head on her knee, big eyes staring up at her, as if to ask: "Are you OK?"
And thanks to their furry friend and support from Irish Guide Dogs, they really are.
⬤ Irish Guide Dogs is Ireland's national charity devoted to helping people who are vision impaired as well as families of children with autism. They receive over 85pc of their income solely through voluntary donations and fundraising throughout Ireland. Their efforts enable clients with sight loss and families of children on the autism spectrum to lead better lives, establish more independence and increase their mobility.
⬤ To find out more information on applying or make a donation, you can call 021 4878200 or go online to guidedogs.ie
Trish opened her home to TG4 where their journey was captured on the 'docu-series' Saol an Mhadra Bháin (The Secret World of Working Dogs). Trish's story, along with others, will continue in this week's episode of Saol an Mhadra Bháin on Wednesday at 9.30pm on TG4.
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