Thursday, 27 March 2014

Meet Elle and Kobash: an autism service dog team

Elle's known for years that she feels better around animals. Now, the Gold Coast Aspie and creator of Planet Aspergia has her own service dog: Kobash, a Blue Heeler-Kelpie cross.

Dream team: Elle, Kobash, and coffee
"If I went anywhere, and there was a dog or a cat, I'd spend all my time with them because I didn't have to force myself to be anything other than what I was," Elle remembers. "Having them around made it easier to be in social situations."

When Elle found out service dogs could be trained to work with autistic people, she set to finding out more with classic Aspie enthusiasm. But despite her excitement, her hopes dropped when she learned the potential costs associated with getting a service dog.

Enter A.W.A.R.E Dogs Australia: a Queensland-based charity that provides service dogs trained to help with individuals' needs. You can even BYO: if the the person's already bonded with a dog, and it's assessed and found suitable, they can help with the training and assessment to have it certified as a service animal. This was the route Elle decided to take.

"For about two years I searched for the best dog for me," Elle says. "I already had a greyhound, but she was unsuitable; too soft, and scared of so many things it would be a shorter list to write what she wasn't scared of!"

After an unsuccessful trial with a Golden Retriever-Border Collie cross, Elle started looking among the working breeds she'd always loved.

Kobash: from rescue dog to service dog
"The best dog I ever had was a Kelpie-cross-Bully. She and I were bonded so tight, she was almost an extension of me. Working breeds are bred to work with humans. And with their high intelligence, they can be trained to practically anything."

Elle was used to female dogs, and hadn't wanted a male. Then she fell in love with a picture of an alert blue dog with big bat ears, that was being fostered by Australian Working Dog Rescue. He was in Cairns — quite a hike from the Gold Coast — but Elle raised the money to have him sent down, on the understanding that if things didn't work out between them he could be re-homed with a local foster carer. With hope in her heart, she set off to meet her potential service dog at the airport.

"Somebody had thought to feed him before his flight, and he had, well...

"My first vision of him was of the most laid back dog, standing in his crate, covered in poo. We took him out and hosed him off, and off we went.

"During the time he was on trial with me, I exposed to him anything and everything I could to test him out. By the time the trial was over, I knew he was going to stay."

The dog dubbed Buster by his foster carers needed a new name. Elle decided on Kobash — a tribute to the blue dog's cobalt and ash colour scheme.

The next step was the paperwork, including a statement from Elle's GP to officially endorse her need for a service dog. Then it was time to have Kobash assessed, to check his suitability for the job. Kobash negotiated his way through city traffic, crowds, lifts, and a bustling conference centre, his attention staying focussed on Elle even when presented with distractions like other dogs. After aquitting himself well in the assessment, it was time to start his training.

Kobash stands behind Elle while working
Training involved obedience work, as well as learning specific tasks to help make Elle's life easier.

"I have trained Kobash to stand in line behind me, as I cannot handle anyone standing right behind me. He also stands behind me when I'm at the ATM.

"If I'm in the shops and overwhelmed sensorily, I go and sit down somewhere and he climbs into my lap, and having his pressure on me helps center me and calm me down.

"Having him around has made it easier to be with lots of other people too. I have taken him to conventions (something I go to every year) and because of his help I made it through whole days with out having to go out to the car to crash from overloading.

"Slowly but surely, people are figuring out that you don't have to be blind to have a service dog. People with heart disease, coeliac disease, epilepsy, PTSD, and autism all use service dogs."

Earlier in March, Kobash passed his public access test.

Service dog on duty

As a service dog, Kobash is entitled to go anywhere Elle does, except sterile zones and food preparation areas. That included accompanying Elle to hospital when she had an operation last year.

If you see a service dog like Kobash working, resist the urge to pat them without asking first. Elle says while the dogs are trained to cope with any situation that might come their way, their mind is still on the job — even if it looks like they're not busy.

"You aren't to pat guide dogs at all, that is taboo, or hearing dogs either. But if you ask, you can pat Kobash and dogs like him.

"You do have to ask. He could be doing something for me at the time that needs his attention. But once asked, if he isn't busy I can get him to say hello.

"Having Kobash has been the best thing for me. I've come a long way since being able to have him."

For more information:

Assistance Dogs International has a list of organisations which provide service and assistance dogs in Australia.

Kobash is on Facebook: you can follow the adventures of the blue service dog here.