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Edwen is not just man's best friend, he's part of the family

The arrival of assistance dog Edwen 10 years ago has transformed the lives of 15-year-old Newtown boy Cian Kelly and his entire family, writes Cathy lee

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Gary, Cian and Ann-Marie Kelly with Edwen

Gary, Cian and Ann-Marie Kelly with Edwen

Cian Kelly with Edwen

Cian Kelly with Edwen

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Gary, Cian and Ann-Marie Kelly with Edwen

Cian Kelly from Newtownmountkennedy is in many ways a typical teenager. He likes to watch funny videos on YouTube; he enjoys taekwondo at the local club; he plays video games; and he has his favourite TV show characters from The Simpsons to Father Ted.

His favourite meal is chicken nuggets and chips and he likes a glass of Coca-Cola with his favourite sweets as a treat.

His favourite subject at school is maths, and the 15-year-old is in second year at Kilcoole's Coláiste Chraobh Abhann secondary school. His teachers predict that he has a bright future ahead, and they see that he will complete both the Junior and Leaving Certificate.

Cian is the youngest of three siblings, and his parents Gary and Ann-Marie Kelly are very proud of him and everything he has achieved.

He's a happy, kind, quiet and mostly content young man, but he now admits that it wasn't always like this for him.

After the Kelly family noticed developmental difficulties with Cian as a baby and toddler, they went about finding answers and decided to get him assessed for autism spectrum disorder.

At the time, he did not communicate in ways that the other children within the family had done, particularly being non-verbal. He was diagnosed at two years and ten months.

It took time, but Cian began a journey of understanding of the world around him, first attending St Catherine's Barnacoyle at the young age of three.

Through what his mother Ann-Marie described as key interventions at St Catherine's, Cian began developing in many ways, both socially and personally, and completed a big milestone when he started to attend the autism unit of Newtownmountkennedy Primary School.

But situations like going to school, getting his hair cut, going to the supermarket or other every-day social activities, used to cause Cian a lot of stress and panic.

He would have melt-downs and become overwhelmed, sometimes he would even bolt away from his family.

At her wits' end from seeing her son having to go through these daily challenges, late one night Ann-Marie did an internet search on possible ways to help Cian to relieve his stress.

She came across the Irish Guide Dogs assistance dogs programme, and was immediately intrigued.

A new chapter began in 2010 when assistance dog Edwen entered Cian's life.

The dog had been carefully matched to Cian and his family and soon Edwen made an impact not just on Cian but on all the Kellys and their extended family.

The family were told that it would take about six months for bonding to take place between the boy and his pet, but that the benefits would include improved participation in social activities, better communication and learning skills as well as a greater sense of responsibility and improved confidence for Cian.

The family had hoped for the best, knowing the depth of need that their son had, but Ann-Marie now admits that the programme surpassed all of their expectations.

'It was one of the best things we ever did as regards looking for treatments or therapy for Cian. The dog has been brilliant - not just for him but for everyone in the family.

'Edwen was there, first off, for Cian's safety, and being attached onto him was very important because we couldn't get Cian out otherwise.

'Our family being able to bring him where we wanted to was how we were going to develop him socially, and bring him on as a person, how we'd bring him to school and do all the things that everybody takes for granted every day,' Ann-Marie said.

Cian quickly began to listen to the training commands for Edwen, such as keep to the kerb, wait and single commands that he became tuned in to.

'He hadn't been really listening to us up to then, which was something we noticed came first, and having Edwen meant that we could go anywhere, because Cian got used to the dog being with him and was relaxed.

'It took practice, but Cian accepted the dog fairly quickly and we found he wasn't stressed when the dog was there,' said Ann-Marie.

Having the assistance dog wearing an Irish Guide Dogs jacket also helped break down barriers in social situations.

'Cian doesn't have a physical indication that he has a disability. You wouldn't know to look at him but his behaviour eventually would give it away. But when people saw the dog, they'd know to give extra consideration and patience, and that worked really well.

'It prevented me from having to explain Cian to people all the time, because previously I felt that I was constantly having to explain everything about a condition that I hardly understood myself at the time'.

Cian himself says that Edwen was a friend to him when he really needed him, and agrees that life is easier when Edwen is with him.

'I think things would be different if I never had a dog like him in my life. I might be a little more wilder, like I was before he came. He calmed me down and he has helped me grow up,' he said.

'I like him because he is very playful and fun, he's fun to have walks with. I feel like he's a good friend to me and I'm more like his friend than his owner'.

As Edwen has been with Cian for ten years now, the dog has retired from service as an assistance dog but will stay with the family as a pet, something they are all very glad about.

'We have been weaning Cian off Edwen for the last couple of years now, once we knew that he wouldn't be getting a second "successor" dog,' explained Ann-Marie.

'The Irish Guide Dogs felt that Edwen had done his job, as Cian had reached a certain age and height physically. Now Edwen is just going to be his friend and his pet.

'I'm also using Edwen's walks as physical exercise in that Cian comes with us. It's about Cian considering another aspect of the dog rather than Edwen working for him, that he now has to think of the needs of the dog and we use that as an example.

'Even though Cian isn't overly affectionate, he likes having Edwen there and if he isn't around, he looks for him. Cian has a pet to lean on and has a good relationship and strong bond that you can't explain.

'This year Cian even bought Edwen a Christmas present, so we are starting to see that Cian sees the dog as part of the family,' said Ann-Marie.

Although Edwen had a huge role to play in Cian's development up to this point, the family know that there were a number of other factors involved in Cian's progression.

'In Newtownmountkennedy Primary School, they really went above and beyond to bring him on and nothing was a problem, everybody was all there to do their best and see what worked.

'Not everything works straight away for children with autism, but they were willing to re-jig things and see what does. They set him up to start secondary school which is something that we never thought he would do.

'His teachers have taught him to ask for help when he needs it. This is a huge thing as it has stopped all the tantrums that he would have had when he was younger.

'It has helped him to say to himself that if he can't do something he'll find someone to help him rather than facing the reality that he can't do something, so that he just stops. They've taught him that skill.

'As a teenager, he is not as mature as his peers in school would be. He's very naive and so trusting of people that he probably could be taken advantage of quite quickly, but with the school environment that he's in now in Colaiste Chraobh Abhann, they are willing to do whatever it takes for him to be comfortable and he feels that they have got his back.

'It means for us that he stays in school longer which is what we want to see'.

A supportive family environment has also been key for Cian's development.

'As parents, Gary and I have tried to be as positive as possible and say that we are not here to argue over what we can give him and can't, rather work this together and see what he can do.

'We were always cautious, at times being unsure whether Cian was ready for some things, but we want to feel secure that he can go into new situations and be a member of a working and living community.

'Socially, he still likes to keep to himself but academically he's up there with the rest of them.

'This child is going places and Cian's progress has been really lucky for us because of the people we met along the way and the people we connected with.

'I always say if a situation is too much, take a small step back but still take that step forward and keep going until it's the norm. So we bring him to eat out, go for ice cream or hot chocolate, anything that anybody else would do on a nice sunny day.

'We feel it'll stop isolation or even depression or anxiety in the future, those things that can hold a person back'.

Ann-Marie said that situations like going for ice cream used to have her on tenterhooks.

'He was hyper, like a jack in the box with us not knowing what he was going to do next.

'I was on tenterhooks thinking I couldn't bring him anywhere as people would say that he can't be controlled, but he's so much better now.

'His social skills and tolerance have improved as well as his understanding of how social situations work, because we have tried to expose him to as much as possible. He is able to withstand a lot more now, and, as he says himself, he used to be wild.

'He has a lovely personality and we've discovered him to be chilled, well behaved and kind'.

Ann-Marie and Gary have high hopes for Cian's future.

'Eventually, even if he doesn't go to college it'd be great if he got an apprenticeship or a job where he could support himself and be independent, go on holidays, go on the bus or the train and do whatever he wants, like go to the cinema or go for lunch. We want to see that he's able to navigate those things,' said Ann-Marie.

The family would like to say thanks to Edwen for his contribution to Cian's life.

'We adore him and the dog will never know what he means to us, but we want him to have the best retirement a dog could have, so that he stays healthy and happy.

'I don't think he realises how good he is, as he adds a calming atmosphere to the home as well'.

Although there are other programmes that provide therapy or assistance dogs for children and adults, like My Canine Companion and Dogs for the Disabled, the Irish Guide Dogs is the largest programme of its kind.

Cian thinks it's a good idea for children like him to have a dog like Edwen.

'If other children were to meet their assistance dog for the first time, they should look forward to having a happy smile and say hello to their new friend,' he said.

Ann-Marie admitted that there has been some changes to the programme over the last ten years, but that the Irish Guide Dogs are always just at the end of a phone to assist with any family needs.

'If you're having any initial problems with attachment, they will work with the family until it's right.

'They know the dogs and this programme work, and because it's so successful everyone wants to use it, but the funding is definitely not as readily available as it was.

'As we have seen, you don't tend to get a "successor" dog, which can be difficult as some children may need them.

'The programme is constantly being updated so that the dog is trained even further, with new techniques but money is an issue'.

Although the Irish Guide Dogs programme is free of charge, others can cost in the thousands.

'It has vastly expanded, but there are still waiting lists everywhere,' said Ann Marie.

When contacted, a spokesperson for the Irish Guide Dogs said that applications for the waiting list for the assistance dog programme are due to open again in the next few months.

To find out more visit www.guidedogs.ie/get-support/assistance-dogs.

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