Woof! It’s International Assistance Dog Week – a perfect opportunity to give a shout-out to our friends Autism Life Dogs, who we often rub shoulders (and waggy tails) with at the London Autism Show.

Autism Life Dogs are a fellow not-for-profit organisation providing therapy and companion dogs for children and families with autism.

Their clever Labradors are specially trained in the games and activities-based Autism Life Dog Therapy Program, which supports the development of speech and language, social interaction and play skills among those with autism.

Where did the idea for Autism Life Dogs come from?

The programme was developed by Danielle Brook – a qualified diagnostic and treatment practitioner specialising in autism spectrum conditions and sensory processing disorder – and her Labrador Nutmeg.

Danielle and Nutmeg, the original Autism Life Dog

Nutmeg’s promising work with some of Danielle’s clients led her to develop the Autism Life Dogs programme.

“I trained in a number of different therapies and interventions in a mission to find the most effective treatment for autism,” explains Danielle. “I believe a combination of regular physical, occupational, sensory integration, speech and language, and play therapy to be the most effective approach, as well as support with the development of life and social skills.

"I've found, however, that this is a lot to put on a family and access to such services can be very limited," she opines.

“My aim, therefore, was to create a low-cost, lifelong approach, based on this combination of therapies, that could be done easily and effectively at home,” she continues. “This quest led me to develop the Autism Life Dog Therapy Program.”

What difference can an Autism Life Dog make?

The program provides opportunities for those with autism to learn, practise and improve important skills sets.

“There are so many reasons why having an Autism Life Dog as part of your family is incredibly special,” Danielle enthuses. “You are not only beginning a lifetime of fun, regular exercise and unconditional love, but you’ll also be providing daily therapy to support your child with their physical, cognitive, social, speech, language and play development – all wrapped up in a best friend for life!

“Families that have been using the therapy program say they see a very noticeable improvement in communication and increase in vocabulary,” she tells us. “In fact, we’ve seen non-verbal children starting to use speech in as little as three days.” 

Others have experienced a significant reduction in anxiety, aggressive outbursts, challenging behaviour and temper tantrums, and an overall increase in emotional stability, independence and self-mastery.

Watch Nutmeg in action, demonstrating how she would defuse such a meltdown:

Why are all the dogs Labradors?

Labradors are highly intelligent, and enjoy training and working.

“Their friendly, loyal and affectionate temperament makes them excellent forever friends for children with autism,” says Danielle. “Their playfulness means they enjoy doing therapeutic games, and they are very attuned and responsive to their human’s energy.” 

People with autism are born with lower levels of the attachment and bonding hormones oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine; hormones that are also clinically proven to significantly reduce anxiety and stress levels. Labradors, however, have naturally elevated levels of these useful calming and sociable hormones, which can counteract this.

“This reduces challenging behaviour – so, by having an Autism Life Dog, you’re essentially getting 24/7 hormone therapy, which has an immense effect on a child’s ability to communicate,” she adds.

Another unique aspect of autism that Autism Life Dog Therapy overcomes is facial agnosia (or face blindness), which is a condition where some individuals cannot identify facial features. Since a substantial amount of communication occurs through facial expression, an inability to see and respond to this can cause difficulties in speech and language development.

According to Danielle, research suggests that the cause of facial agnosia is linked with the sclera (the whites of the eyes), which are very prominent in humans. Labradors, however, have less white in their eyes, which means children with face blindness can read the dogs’ expressions and non-verbal communication much more easily. This facilitates the natural development of speech and language.

Meet Autism Life Dogs’ newest recruit, Renee

Last weekend, Danielle’s newest Life Dog, Renee, moved in with her new forever friend, four-year-old Rhys and his mum Tina.

Renee and her new forever friend Rhys

“We are very particular about what we look for in an Autism Life Dog,” Danielle stresses, “so we work closely with expert breeder and trainer Andrew Preston when selecting potential dogs. Renee was chosen because she has all the right attributes – she’s playful, affectionate, intelligent and very responsive to the people around her.”

Renee was learning many of her Autism Life Dog skills from puppyhood, including socialisation and her basic commands. She was then trained in the specific games and activities of the Autism Life Dog Therapy Program during a four-week intensive course.

“Because each child with autism is unique, we try to understand as much as we can about each individual family and their circumstances when matching them with an Autism Life Dog,” explains Danielle.

“Throughout the process, we developed a close relationship with Rhys’s family to help us better understand his presentation of autism, his particular behaviours and what his family were hoping to achieve. We used this information to match him with Renee – and she is settling in really well!” she says.

Rave reviews for Renee

"We found out about Autism Life Dogs from a friend who had met Danielle and Nutmeg at the Autism Show," recalls Rhys's mum Tina. "Rhys had previously responded positively to dogs, but I was worried that getting a new puppy without any support would be too much hard work for me - and not beneficial to Rhys, who would see me getting stressed!

"Autism Life Dogs seemed like a really happy medium because, while he doesn't need physical support, Rhys needs help with sensory issues, socialising and communication," she continues.

"Rhys is non-verbal and does get very frustrated at times. Although Renee seemed to cope really well with this from the off, at first I was worried about how much the poor little lady could put up with!" Tina admits.

She needn't have worried, however, as Rhys and Renee have really taken to one another.

"On her second day with us, Renee was very tired after a long walk, and Rhys kindly covered her with his blankets and even put her head on his Frozen pillow," she says. "He was also watching a film on his Kindle Tablet and put this in front of her so she could watch it while she was having a rest."

Renee enjoys a well deserved rest after a successful day of therapy

"Danielle has been a great support to us," Tina continues. "Knowing I can call on her any time for advice on both Rhys's and Renee's behaviour is a real comfort. I have faith that, so long as Renee continues to cope admirably with Rhys's unpredictability, they will become best friends in no time."

Here at United Response, we are big fans of Danielle and Autism Life Dogs; their unique form of doggy-led combination-therapy puts a smile on everyone’s face at the Autism Show each year. We wish Rhys and Renee all the best in their new friendship – here’s to a lifetime of stress-free walks, wet kisses and waggy tails!

Danielle Brook was talking to Laura Cook, web and digital communications assistant.

Find out more about Autism Life Dogs and purchasing your own therapeutic canine companion at www.autismlifedogs.com – and be sure to like Nutmeg’s Facebook page.

If you can’t have your own dog full time and live in London, you can still benefit from the Autism Life Dog Therapy Program! Nutmeg offers individual and group sessions, which take place in Crystal Palace Park. Please email Danielle or call 020 3380 8037 for more details.