Wednesday 22 May 2019

New leash of life for Oliver

Gemma Kane talks to Ken Phelan about how a dog called Marco has made such a huge difference in the life of her son, Oliver, who lives with autism

Gemma Kane with her son Oliver and his dog, Marco
Gemma Kane with her son Oliver and his dog, Marco

Growing up with autism can be extremely difficult for children, and an ongoing challenge for their parents who try to guide them through life as best they can.

For one little boy from Balbriggan though, life has been transformed by his new best friend, a two-and-a-half-year-old Red Golden Retriever assistance dog named Marco, a canine pal who has transformed his life into something his mum had only ever dreamed of.

Oliver Kane (9) is diagnosed with autism and has a learning disability, and before he was introduced to Marco, led what was by all accounts a very difficult life.

Largely house bound, Oliver faced daily challenges most other children would not have to face. He could not communicate with his family, leading to frustrations and problem behaviour, had little social outlets and faced the many problems a diagnoses of autism entails. Until Marco came along, Oliver couldn't do simple things - go for a walk, visit the playground or cinema, or enjoy a level of independence children of a similar age could.

Here, Oliver's mum Gemma explains what life was like before Marco came along, and how their special dog changed their lives and brought the whole family together: 'Oliver is non-verbal, so before we had the dog he would've had no speech at all. Before we got Marco, Oliver's anxiety was really bad. If he was going anywhere new, or anywhere he didn't know, he would just cry and make himself sick. He'd lie on the floor freaking out, because he didn't understand where we were going or why we were going.

'So the anxiety was the worst thing. He was very frustrated because he couldn't communicate with us, and he was hitting and things like that because he was so frustrated. He had no road sense, and couldn't go out because he wouldn't know to stop to cross the road.

'It was causing me a lot of anxiety bringing him somewhere, and you kind of dreaded bringing him anywhere because you never knew how he was going to react. So it was a lot of preparing and you had to have a lot of patience. It was very hard on all of us because it was a tough task going anywhere, and to be honest I dreaded going anywhere that was out of routine for him because you didn't know how he was going to react on the day.

'I'd seen stories online about assistance dogs, and we love dogs in the house anyway. We used to have a dog, but I think he sensed that something was wrong with Oliver and turned vicious, so we had to get rid of him. It was unfortunate, but obviously the kids come first. An assistance dog wasn't something that crossed my mind, until I saw online that Irish Guide Dogs were opening a waiting list. Oliver fit the criteria, so my mum and brother were over from England at the time when I heard about it, and my mam said there's no harm in applying and just see what happens.'

After a few emails back and forth, Gemma received a phone call from Irish Guide Dogs in June 2017 to ask if she'd go to Cork for two days' pre-training on working with assistance dogs. Here, she learned all about taking care of an assistance dog, and how to introduce one to Oliver and the family. She was then asked to consider if an assistance dog would be suitable for Oliver, and emailed Irish Guide Dogs immediately saying she'd be delighted to take one. A worker with Irish Guide Dogs then came to Gemma's home later that year to see if Marco would match Oliver and fit in with the family, and having found him to be suitable, he then began his first day of work.

Gemma says: 'We got Marco in March last year, and within three months we were out walking every day. Oliver wouldn't really have gone out of the house a lot, because he finds the house somewhere where he feels safe and secure. We were out one day, and I said to Oliver do you want to go to the playground? He was a bit hesitant at first, because he wouldn't have been in a playground since he was around twelve or eighteen months as he felt it very overwhelming.

'So within three months we were going to the playground every day over the summer holidays. That continued when he went back to school, we'd go out with Marco every day, we'd walk around the block, and there were builders doing some work and Oliver would like to see all the diggers and machinery and stuff.

'There was a lot more of getting Oliver out and about, and he'd even start talking to other kids in the playground. His speech has come along so much since having Marco. That might be a coincidence, but I don't think it is. His anxiety levels have gone down as well; they're still there, but they're not as bad as they were before. He might have a little bit of a cry if I tell him we have to go somewhere, but when I say to him, 'come on, you me and Marco are going for a walk', we don't have the sort of meltdowns that we used to have if we were going somewhere new. He walks great with Marco, and he loves being attached to him because it gives him that bit of independence.'

Oliver, Gemma says, has had a boost of confidence since Marco came along, and now has at least some sense of independence. He's doing better at school and is talking to other children even though he's been classed as 'non-verbal.' Oliver now comes home from school telling his mum about his friends at school, something which he had never done in the past. When he goes to the playground, he's mixing with other children, whereas before, he would have avoided contact. Although it's hard to say if this is down to his new pal, Gemma feels Marco has definitely been a positive influence in Oliver's behaviour.

Marco is now 'fully-qualified', Gemma says, having gone through extensive training since he was eight weeks old.

Following a year of training, he then went to 'puppy walkers', where he was taken for walks in busy environments such as shopping centres, in order for him to become familiar with crowds and various social settings.

All of this training was carried out in order to prepare Marco for his future role as an assistance dog, and to acclimatise him to social situations and get him used to having people around.

Life, Gemma says, has never been better. Oliver is happier, has gained some independence, his speech has improved and he's met a new best friend along the way. In one year, both her's and Oliver's lives have been turned around, thanks to the new addition to the family. She says: 'On the whole, we're much happier. He's a great dog, and he makes us laugh every day for some of the things that he does. The changes that he's had in Oliver makes me want to go out more as well. We've been to the cinema twice since we've had Marco, and if you'd told me three or four years ago that I'd be going to the cinema with my son, I'd have laughed at you.

'I thought it was something that I'd never be able to do with him, and it just makes going out more pleasurable because you know that he's safe because he's attached to Marco. It reduces my stress levels and my anxiety as well as Oliver's. We're a dog family anyway, so it's great to have him around the house, and he's helped all of us in our own little ways.

'My doggie means everything to me. He's done so much for me and my family and I can never thank him enough. He is so well suited to my family and has me in fits of laughter at some of the things he does. When he's at home he's just like a pet, but as soon as his jacket goes on, he's like a different dog and he knows it's time to help my son.

'He's the most beautiful dog I've ever seen and I get a lot of comments from people about how well behaved he is. My whole family would be lost without him.'

Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind is a national charity dedicated to helping people living with sight loss or autism improve their mobility and independence. Guide Dog Day, on Friday May 10, will focus on the organisation's clients, their families and volunteers sharing their stories about the difference Guide and Assistance Dogs have had in their lives and community.

You can get involved in Guide Dog Day by becoming a volunteer, buying a pin at any collection point across the country, by donating online at, or by donating €4 by texting 'WOOF' to 50300.

Fingal Independent