“He’s a Labradoodle!” smiles six-year-old Darragh when the silly reporter asks what breed of dog he is petting.
But Ulla is no ordinary mix of a Labrador and a Poodle - he is an autism assistance dog. Darragh was diagnosed with autism when he was two and a half. A couple of months later mum, Stephanie Schmid, made the astute decision to apply for an autism assistance dog.
“I was researching everything to do with autism when the Irish Guide Dogs page popped up. When I saw there was such a long wait I said I would apply,” said Stephanie.
It takes years of specialised training costing €38,000 before the four-legged friend is ready to be placed with its new family. Currently, the Irish Guide Dogs say: “Due to an extensive waiting list applications for their assistance dog programme are now closed.” Stephanie knows Limerick families who would benefit from a dog like Ulla but they can’t even apply.
“There’s a huge over-demand and we don’t have the funding or resources to meet it,” said a spokesperson.
Stephanie, who lives in Castletroy View, put her name down in late 2010 and Ulla became part of the family in early 2013. It is now hard to imagine Darragh without Ulla.
“They are as thick as thieves. The last thing Darragh does before he goes to bed is say, ‘Night, night, Ulla’,” said Stephanie.
After putting their names down the mum and son were invited to the Irish Guide Dogs centre in Cork to meet with a trainer and explain why they needed one.
“He had a dog with him, not Darragh’s as he hadn’t been chosen yet. He saw what Darragh was like around the dog, asked us about family life, our house, had we dogs before...” explained Stephanie.
The Irish Guide Dogs kept in contact with the family, sending letters for more information to ensure the chosen one suits the child’s needs. As Darragh is quite tall for his age one of the requirements was that it is a big, strong dog like Ulla.
“Each dog is trained individually for the child,” said Stephanie.
Staff visited their home to ensure it was suitable, then in December 2012 they got the best Christmas present ever when news came that they had found Darragh’s dog. In February, Stephanie went to Cork for a week’s training.
“When it was over I had to drive home with Ulla in the car. I was so nervous because obviously I had precious cargo on board!” said Stephanie. She was warned it often takes a couple of months for the child to connect with their dog and sometimes they don’t have any bond at all. It will just be a working relationship.
“At first Darragh was having none of the dog. He didn’t even want to look at him. He kept saying, ‘Why is he here? Send him back to Martin [the trainer]’.
“He wasn’t saying, ‘Get him out of here’ but he wasn’t falling all over him.”
That is hard to believe now. One very touching moment during the Leader’s visit was when Ulla was gambolling in the garden with a ball. But during the fun and games Ulla ran inside to the sitting room to check on Darragh, who was relaxing on the couch. When Ulla first arrived Stephanie put the special working jacket on him and Darragh held the harness. A belt goes around his waste that clips on to Ulla’s jacket. Now it an everyday occurrence
“Autistic kids have no sense of danger whatsoever. Your typical child might be some bit aware there is a car coming so I better wait but an autistic child wouldn’t see the danger at all and they have a tendency to bolt. So when Darragh is attached to the dog he can’t because the dog stays by my side because I have him by the lead.”
The two worked perfectly but there was no other interaction. Then three weeks later Darragh started going over to Ulla of his own volition to rub and play with him. “He loves Ulla,” smiles Stephanie.
Thanks to man’s, or in this case boy’s best friend, Darragh is safer, has improved social skills and mum has more peace of mind.
“Before we had Ulla we would be going to Dunnes to do the shopping. I would take Darragh out of the car, turn around for a second to get my bag and Darragh would be gone half way down the car-park. I would have to chase after him. Now I put the belt around Darragh’s waste, attach it to Ulla and then I can get myself sorted. It is massive peace of mind.”
Ulla has helped teach Darragh about road safety as he automatically stops at every kerb before crossing. The biggest difference Stephanie has noticed is socially.
“Before if I met somebody out shopping I knew Darragh wouldn’t hang around for me to chat. I would be trying to say hi and bye as quickly as I could. Being autistic, he doesn’t see a goal in having a conversation with someone.
“He wouldn’t have a reason to speak to a person, then we got Ulla. Now if we meet anybody the first thing they ask about is the dog. Then Darragh gets involved in the conversation and is delighted to show off his dog. He is very proud and it gives him a reason to talk to people,” said Stephanie. Darragh is especially popular in Donoughmore National School as his classmates love seeing Ulla. It is a misnomer that you should never pet a guide or assistance dog
“When the dog is working you are not supposed to pet the dog as it distracts them. When his jacket comes off he is just a regular dog. When Ulla is playing he is very boisterous and jumps around like a lunatic but when I put his jacket on he is ready for work. I didn’t think a dog could be that intelligent unit we got Ulla.”
As Darragh gets older Ulla’s positive influence will continue to grow.
”He realises we have to look after the dog - we have to brush and feed him. It makes him more aware of life skills,” said Stephanie, whose heart sunk last month when she read about an autism assistance dog in Castleconnell going missing.
“I instantly felt sick because I imagined if it was me and Darragh and Ulla went missing. I don’t know what I would do. I love dogs but because he minds my child he is more precious. He is like Darragh’s right hand man.” Dogs like Ulla are thanks to the hard-working staff in Irish Guide Dogs and public donations - accounting for 80 per cent of their funding.
“Companies can sponsor dogs too. There are a lot of deserving charities but when you see the benefits that a dog has with an autistic child and how much better it makes their life and the family’s life...” It will always be a charity close to Stephanie’s and Darragh’s hearts.
Log onto www.guidedogs.ie for more information.