Belfast Telegraph

Helpful hounds: the dogs who make a real difference

By Clare Williamson

They are caring canines which are transforming lives.

Assistance Dogs Northern Ireland (ADNI) yesterday celebrated the successful training of its first five 'graduates'.

The dogs completed a 12-month programme and now two are helping wheelchair users and three are with children with autism.

Rebecca Barker (6), from Portglenone, was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome when she was four years old.

Her mum Michelle said receiving her assistance dog Honey had helped the public understand her difficulties.

She said: "It's a hidden disability. Rebecca would be scared of people coming up to her, or loud noises.

"People are very quick to judge and automatically think it's someone having a tantrum.

"At least now, when they see Honey, they understand Rebecca has a disability and it's not being naughty, it's how she is."

If Rebecca gets scared, her instinct would be to try and run away from the situation, but she is attached to Honey from the backpack she wears, which anchors her to stop her running.

"Honey has helped her so well," said Michelle.

"If she was at a till and the assistant spoke to Rebecca, she would have put her hand over her eyes. But now, with Honey, she is willing to talk to them because it's all about Honey."

She added: "Honey has changed Rebecca and given her so much confidence. She is happier and Honey has just changed her life."

Patrick McDonnell (26), from outside Newry, has been in a wheelchair for the past two-and-a-half years as a result of an accident at work.

Patrick said since ADNI gave him his dog, Hollie, he has become less apprehensive about going out. He said: "Since Hollie came she has got me more socially active and going out. My mood would have dipped and I wouldn't have gone places.

"I would have been apprehensive of people looking at me in the chair."

He added: "But when Hollie is there it's a distraction from me, because everyone looks at the dog. I would be lost without her now."

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