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Dog Agility Therapy Autism

How dogs are helping children with autism in Scotland...

It all started when a parent who had been a teacher at school asked Blair Cochrane if he  could help her son interact with their Labrador Retriever. His initial response was that this was way above his ability. However, after a long think, he decided to give it a try. And that's how DATA (Dog Agility Therapy Autism) was born.

My idea was to create a programme of therapy using dogs and dog agility that, in addition to helping them socialise, would help reduce the sensory chaos that individuals with ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder) can experience. Using conditioned specific structured stages, I aim to teach those with the disorder how to engage, interact and understand the social rules of a successful partnership.

The main challenge is in the first few sessions when weíre trying to get the dog to complete the obstacles. We also aim to make it fun for the child so they enjoy the sessions and want to come back.

Initially, due to Master K's level of Autism, it was decided that I would introduce him to the equipment in picture form getting him used to the names of the various pieces of equipment. After working with him for a month, I then took him to my field with his dog and put into practice what we had been going over with the pictures. Master K and Ellie excelled and took to it. I would hold onto the lead until he said over and Ellie would jump over a jump so that he was learning through cause and effect. This was applied with the different pieces of equipment until he knew what was required. K can now negotiate a course on lead with me directing with left and right. Sadly his dog died just before Christmas.

Another pupil I had was a five year old boy who also had a Lab. He came for a year initially - sometimes he would not come into the field. However, once he overcame that barrier, he learnt very quickly and his speech improved. His speech and language therapist could not understand why his prepositions (over, through) were improving until his mum told them he was doing Agility, he didnít understand when it was on paper.

James has trained his Jack Russell Max from a puppy, has entered his first fun show and is going to be entering KC shows this summer. The boy with the husky is about to start training his second dog, his Aunties Saluki X.

The boys have trained the dogs themselves and have grown in confidence even trying each other's dogs. I have found that two of the boys have formed a friendship through Agility - which is something that can be very daunting for a child with Autism. The child with the Jack Russell is looking at entering his first show soon.

I now have a Lab, a Jack Russell and a Husky that are all doing Agility. While there does seem to be more boys than girls who suffer from Autism, I've recently had a request from a parent of an autistic girl. The sessions, which typically cost £10-£15 for the hour, provide an opportunity for parents and carers to watch their children as they train alongside their dog. Sessions will be cut short, however, if the child or dog is feeling overwhelmed.

Dogs have the ability to open the door into the world of an individual with ASD. I believe that they can help lower the stress levels of children who suffer from autism.  When the child smiles and interacts with their dog, itís the most rewarding part.

My goal for 2016 is to see more children from all over Scotland involved, along with their dogs. I hope to teach individuals meaningful language and communication skills that will assist them to realise the social joy of communication between themselves and the dog.

DATA, currently a volunteer-led project, has been running for five years. The programme lets children learn basic dog-training in a relaxing and non-threatening atmosphere.  It has proved so popular that a Facebook page has been set up  for autistic children to have fun with their dogs by doing agility, and allowing members to organise training sessions with the animals.

We are now looking to raise £5,000 of funding to expand and develop the therapy service, with a digital fundraising campaign under way on Crowdfunder UK.

About the author...
Blair Cochran is an Additional Support Needs Assistant working in a special school with autistic children.  He combines his two passions of dog agility training and caring for people with autism.

From the start he was hooked on dog training. He started with a friend's dog but soon got his dog and moved into agility. He caught the competitive bug and has since competed with dogs of different sizes and levels across the length and breadth of the country including Crufts.

Blair enjoys teaches and has experience organising successful agility shows. He has also been given the opportunity to judge and has passed his criteria to judge at Championship level.

First published 03 February 2016