Young Gilford man with autism has lifelong bond with four-legged friends
Many dog owners begin their mornings with a walk, but for Josh Ryan, that task takes almost three hours and requires seven trips.
The 20-year-old, from Gilford, Co Down, is the proud owner of seven large-breed dogs, including two German shepherds who each have their own sofa to sleep on at night.
Josh has autism and sometimes struggles to interact with other people, but over the years, his canine companions have been his best friends.
He lives with his mum and step-dad, Joanne and Nigel Smith, twin sister Claudia and older sister Natalie (21). Thankfully, the family have a big garden.
They currently has Doberman Charlie, King Charles spaniel Leo, three huge great Danes — Gibson, Monroe and Hepburn — and German shepherds Brody and Maggie.
The family also has a 19-year-old cat, Indie, who apparently “rules the roost”.
Joanne estimates that the dogs weigh in at a combined 58st and cost over £300 a month to feed. But over the years, they have been a lifeline for Josh.
“They’re his best friends,” says the 45-year-old. “He didn’t speak until he was five and his first word was ‘dog’.”
Joanne realised that her son was different when he was just a baby. As twin Claudia was meeting her milestones, her brother was lagging behind.
“At 10 months, Claudia was starting to pull herself up and Josh was still lying on his back,” she says. “He just stared straight past me when I was talking to him — he would only make eye contact with the family dogs.
“Then he struggled to wean and went through a phase of only eating white foods — rice, mashed potatoes and yoghurt. As Claudia started talking, Josh never uttered a word.”
Josh was diagnosed with autism in 2004, aged three. By that time, he had started learning to walk and was also following the family dogs around.
“I’ve always loved animals, so the kids have all grown up with dogs,” says Joanne. “When they were young, we had a dog called Scarlet, a great Dane. She was Josh’s favourite. Wherever Scarlet went, Josh followed.
“At school, he struggled to make friends. He was never invited to birthday parties or anything like that. The dogs were his best friends instead.”
Josh developed a particular fondness for German shepherds.
“He didn’t like leaving the house — he’d only go out to walk the dogs or go to school,” says Joanne.
“We often met a man in the park who walked a German shepherd and Josh took a real shine to him.
“He also watched a lot of 999 cop shows on telly and of course there are lots of German shepherds on those. I promised him that when he turned 18, he could have one.”
As Josh grew up, the family moved to a bigger home, with a large garden. They built a self-contained flat above the garage so he could live more independently but still be supported. The number of dogs they had steadily increased.
When he turned 18 two years ago, Joanne kept her promise and Brody the German shepherd joined the family, followed by Maggie 10 months ago. Both the German shepherds live in Josh’s flat with him and he trains them himself.
Now that he’s finished his schooling, Josh’s life revolves around his canine companions.
“Josh manages everything,” says Joanne. “He’s meticulously clean, so he always picks up after them.
“He gets up in the morning, feeds them and then takes them each out for a walk individually. He covers around six miles over those seven walks and it takes him about three hours.
“The afternoons are for training and then he walks them all individually a second time later too, so he probably clocks up around 12 miles a day from dog-walking.”
Joanne believes that the dogs have taught Josh and her other children valuable life skills, including responsibility. They’ve also had to learn that dogs have a shorter lifespan than people.
Josh’s fastidiously clean nature has just landed him his first job, cleaning the workshop of a local car showroom.
He was supported by the Portadown-based social enterprise Usel (Ulster Supported Employment Limited) through its Stride project, which aims to help people with disabilities into work.
Joanne contacted Usel at the beginning of the pandemic to see if they could help Josh. He began by taking courses in health and safety, manual handling, customer service and employability.
The social enterprise has delivered almost 1,000 courses over the past 12 months, helping people into domestic and care work, retail and logistics.
In March, Josh began working part-time for industrial cleaning company ServiceMaster in Portadown, cleaning Shelbourne Motors.
“It’s absolutely ideal. He works from 5.30pm to 7.30pm, cleaning the workshop after it closes,” says Joanne.
“It really plays to his strengths because Josh absolutely loves cleaning. In fact, the manager has told me he’s never seen the place looking so clean.”
A spokeswoman for Usel told Sunday Life: “We are so proud of Josh’s progression into employment, supported through our Stride project.
“This really is testament to his hard work and the determination he showed throughout his Stride journey, all during a global pandemic.
“The Stride project runs all year, with a variety of courses, all tailored to the needs of the individual, aimed at helping people gain sustainable paid employment. People can self-refer by contacting Usel.”
Of course, for Joshua, one of the best things about his job is that it leaves him with plenty of time to look after his dogs too.
“He absolutely adores them all,” says Joanne. “They really are his life.”
For more information on Stride, visit www.usel.co.uk