Autism Service Dog a 'life changer' for 10-year-old girl

An Autism Service Dog whose training was sponsored by the Bupa Pet Insurance team has transformed the life of a young Tweed Heads family. They say the difference labrador Amigo has made is extraordinary.

If 10-year-old Armani is feeling anxious, labrador Amigo will calm her down. If she tries to run away, he’ll stop her. And if she steps onto the road without checking for danger, Amigo is always one step ahead.

Genevieve Synnott says she will never forget the day her daughter Armani was first introduced to a service dog.

She was driving along a freeway in Brisbane, her then 8-year-old daughter had become upset in the back seat and was thrashing wildly, trying to kick in the windows.

“Armani’s meltdowns can be really frightening. My friend lived nearby so I stopped at her house, and she had a retired guide dog. I was carrying Armani in kicking and screaming, and the dog ran straight towards her and comforted her. Within three minutes she had gone from being completely overwhelmed, yelling and pulling her hair, to being calm and engaged with this animal.”

Seeing the difference a dog was able to make for her daughter, who was diagnosed with autism as a seven-year-old, Genevieve applied for an Autism Service Dog through Assistance Dogs Australia.

Demand for service dogs far outweighs availability, and one dog’s training and maintenance involves a $35 000 investment.

Two years later, the Synnott family was lucky enough to receive Amigo, a beautiful black Labrador who had been through two years of intensive training. They learnt that Amigo’s training had been sponsored by Bupa Pet Insurance.

“We have our health insurance with Bupa and now we have pet insurance with Bupa so finding out Bupa had made Amigo’s training possible, it felt like it was meant to be,” Genevieve says.

Autism is a lifelong condition that affects how a person communicates and relates to other people. Many people with Autism have difficulty processing everyday sensory information, which can affect their behaviour and emotions.

In the 8 months since Amigo was welcomed into the family, their lives have been transformed.

“People who have watched Armani’s behaviour change dramatically ask how I’ve done it and I just tell them, it’s Amigo. I haven’t done anything differently other than bring him into our life. He’s a constant calming presence, so it’s been a blessing,” Genevieve says.

Amigo has been taught to identify danger, and intervene.

“If Armani is trying to run away, Amigo will either circle her to physically stop her, or he’ll start alert barking to let me know something’s wrong. Normal dogs will bark all the time but these dogs are trained to only bark on command, or if there’s danger.

“If Armani is trying to hurt herself with her hands, for example scratching herself, Amigo will stop her. Most dogs would cower and run away from a child throwing something, or being destructive, but Amigo has been trained to intervene. He’ll go straight to Armani and lick her face, put his body weight on her, engage her, step around her or step over her so she has to focus on him and so she can’t get to her face, for example.”

He’s even made a difference to her school attendance, helping her find peace and enjoyment in something which was previously too overwhelming.

“If Armani is having issues getting dressed, she might throw off her top, her shoes, refuse to get dressed, Amigo makes it a game and retrieves each item and brings it back to her. So, she then thinks it’s funny, her emotion changes and we can get dressed and ready for school.”

Amigo is so in tune with people’s emotions, he’s also been a best friend for Armani’s mum. Looking after a child with autism can be isolating and exhausting, and Amigo has helped Genevieve realise that sometimes, she needs looking after too.

“I wasn’t much of a dog person beforehand, but I absolutely love Amigo because he provides so much comfort for me. If I am upset, distressed or crying, he will come to me straight away. He’ll put his face in my lap and just be with me in that moment. So he is able to respond to my emotions too.”

As Armani approaches her teenage years and starts seeking more independence, Genevieve feels comforted knowing her daughter will always have an extra set of eyes keeping watch over her.

“I know that Amigo will be with Armani for her adolescence and into her adult life, and I know he will always look after her.”

If you’re interested in sponsoring an Assistance Dog, or making a donation to assist with training, visit Assistance Dogs Australia.

If you’ve got pets at home that need protecting, find out more about Bupa Pet Insurance. Or, if you’re looking for a great Christmas gift idea for dog lovers, you can't go past the beautiful Happiness is Dog Shaped coffee table book.

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