The title of “Man’s Best Friend” has long been held by our loyal, friendly, furry companion – the dog. They fill our homes and our hearts with memories, love and fun and are loved by children and adults alike.
FOCUS met 6 year old Bailey, his best friend Coco, the Chocolate Labrador and Bailey’s mum, Kelly, to learn more about their family, their adventures and the special bond between Bailey and Coco.
The relationship between Bailey and Coco is a little different to just any love between a boy and his dog; Coco can also be known as Bailey’s very own Furry Therapist. Bailey is one of thousands of children growing up with Autism, a lifelong developmental condition that affects, among other things, the way an individual relates to his or her environment and their interaction with others. Indicators of Autism in young children can be detected as early as 18 – 24 months of age and Bailey’s mum, Kelly Gater, discussed with FOCUS that Bailey was diagnosed with the condition at the age of three.
There are many different channels of support, workshops and therapies to help children, adults and families affected by the condition. Kelly tells FOCUS how she turned to Pet Therapy to help Bailey. Coco was made a member of the family as a puppy and was introduced to Bailey as Bailey’s dog, and their bond has been strengthening from the day Coco and Bailey first met. Coco is currently in training with Carri Robinson from Salty Dog Canine Coaching, as well as being in training with Assistance Dogs Australia and is training towards becoming an Autism Service Dog.
What is an Autism Service Dog?
Autism Service Dogs are specially trained dogs which act as companions to children on the autism spectrum between 5 – 16 years old. The dogs are highly trained and have to complete two years training for this special role. Although they are designed to encourage and support the children, it doesn’t stop there; these special dogs can provide support to the whole family, young or old and can act as companions to the child as they develop through to adulthood. Kelly attended a PAWS workshop (Parents Autism support Workshop) with Assistance Dogs Australia and decided to apply for an Autism Assistance Dog after attending the workshops. Usually dogs are raised and trained by a volunteer at Assistance Dogs Australia before being matched with their client. However, Kelly’s situation is slightly different; she has raised Coco from a puppy, allowing Bailey and the whole family to be a part of the training. In this way, Coco has had a fantastic start to her training, as she has grown up alongside Bailey. This inclusive training is a great way for dogs to be raised, especially as Assistance Dogs Australia often struggle to find volunteers to raise a puppy.
How has Coco helped Bailey?
Kelly tells FOCUS about the very special and close bond Bailey and Coco have and how Coco has been an essential part in building on Bailey’s communication skills, confidence and social relationships. Before Coco joined the family, Kelly tells us how if the family went to a public café and a server came to the table, Bailey would not engage with them as this was outside of his comfort zone, but now, thanks to the confidence Coco has given Bailey, he will happily talk about Coco to new people. This is what is called a social “ice breaker”, which has helped Bailey connect with others as he has some great stories to tell people about him and Coco. Kelly tells us how Bailey would become quite anxious about going to school and of other social or new situations that weren’t familiar to him, to the point when Bailey did not wish to play outside – a heartbreaking situation for a young child and for an encouraging family. This all changed thanks to Coco, who acts to reduce Bailey’s anxiety and put Bailey at ease.
Another way in which Coco has helped Bailey is with his tactile perception. When Bailey is feeling anxious, frustrated or sad, he turns to what he calls “Coco Cuddles”. The pressure of Coco’s body against Bailey gives Bailey the tactile and therapeutic fulfilment that he needs to bring him back to calm. For times when Coco isn’t there to lend a helping paw, Bailey has a weighted pressure stuffed animal that looks just like Coco to cuddle when he is feeling anxious. Kelly tells us, “Actually, he has a few Coco toys; if he sees one, he has to have it!” Kelly insists that Coco is the anchor of the whole family.
The Furry Therapist offers Bailey a great deal of routine and stability in his day to day activities. Kelly kindly showed FOCUS Bailey’s visual schedules, which is made up of pictures acting as visual reminders with instructions for daily activities for both himself and for Coco. Kelly explains that often if you asked Bailey to do a list of tasks, he would find this challenging and frustrating, so the visual schedules work as a daily checklist, made fun because Coco is involved too! The visual schedule links Bailey’s and Coco’s activities together, so when Bailey wakes up, Coco wakes up, Bailey feeds Coco breakfast and then Bailey has his breakfast, Bailey brushes Coco’s fur and then brushes his own hair. This responsibility and ownership over Coco has worked immensely for Bailey and has built on his environmental understanding, as well as teaching him the importance of each daily task.
Kelly tells FOCUS about Bailey’s bedtime routine, where Coco cuddles up to Bailey each night until Bailey falls asleep and then climbs into her own bed until woken up by Bailey the next morning. Coco has done a lot for Bailey and his family and the love, companionship and empathy shared between the adorable pair is clear to see.
Thanks Kelly, Bailey and Coco.
Photo: Coco, Bailey & Carri from Salty Dog Canine Coaching