Owen Bains, 6, sat in the living room of his family’s Central Saanich home petting a new furry friend.
But his new canine companion isn’t your average family pet. Rather, the new addition to the family, a 16-month-old black lab named Vermont, is a specialized assistance dog who is trained to help Owen on a day to day basis.
Owen suffers from autism. One of the family’s biggest challenges they face on a daily basis is the fact that Owen has a tendency to bolt.
“It can happen in seconds,” explained Owen’s mother, Nicole. “Once I had my back turned for less than two minutes and he was out the door and almost all the way across our property and heading into the trees. It’s really scary.”
The family home, which is lived in by Nicole, her husband and their three children, now features alarmed doors and the property is being fenced to ensure the same thing doesn’t happen again. But, she added, all the planning at home won’t prevent Owen from bolting in public.
“And that’s where Vermont comes in. Once they are working together all the time, Owen will wear a tether around his waist to control the dog. But it will also work to keep Owen from bolting because if he becomes anxious and tries to run, Vermont is trained to lie down and stop him from going anywhere,” she explained.
The family has had Vermont for two weeks and Nicole hopes to have the dog working with Owen in his day to day life within a few months. Within a year she hopes to have the assistance dog attend school with Owen regularly because she has already seen the calming influence the canine has on him.
“It’s really amazing. Vermont has this calming influence on Owen, which is very important. Owen can get stressed out and has a lot of anxiety when he goes out in public and I’ve already noticed he’s calmer when Vermont is around,” said Nicole, adding that the dog gives him something completely separate to focus on.
In the last two weeks of having the assistance dog in the home, Nicole said Owen, who was diagnosed on the high end of the autism spectrum before he turned three, has also followed direction better and has become more calm during car rides — something that always gave him anxiety.
“Vermont rides in the car in the backseat sitting beside Owen,” she said. “Normally we had very little time between getting Owen in the car and the time he would become anxious and start crying. With Vermont in the car, he hasn’t had a single problem yet, even during a four hour drive to Mount Washington last week.”
The wait list for an autism assistance dog in B.C. is close to four years, so when looking into getting an assistance dog for Owen, Nicole decided on the Dog Guides program in Ontario. The family was approved for an autism assistance dog and Nicole traveled to Oakville, ON to train with Vermont and bring him home.
“It’s a bit of different situation because normally the client is the handler. In our situation, Owen doesn’t have the ability to be the handler, so my husband and I are, and Owen is the client. That adds an extra facet into the relationship with Vermont,” she explained.
The Dog Guides program in Ontario is run through the Lions Foundation and the organization supplies dog guides to clients all over Canada for vision, hearing, specialized skill assistance, seizure response and autism assistance.
Out of the eight dogs in Vermont’s specially trained autism assistance class, a program which has been running for three years, two came to B.C.
“It’s a really great program and it’s all equal opportunity, so that anyone who has a need for a dog and that qualifies is considered,” explained Nicole. “We are very lucky to have Vermont.”
The family has been taking Vermont out for the last couple of weeks to common places they go, in order to get both Vermont and Owen acclimatized to being out in public together.
So far the response from the community has been good, but Nicole said she hopes that the family and Vermont will become familiar faces around the Peninsula.
“We want people to recognize us and Vermont,” she explained. “I know in can be a shock for some people to see an assistance dog in a grocery store or in a restaurant, so by going out into public more and more, hopefully it will become recognized,” she said, adding that some people question Vermont’s status as a real dog guide because of the fact that he’s an autism assistance dog.
“It’s just the same as a vision dog guide or a special skills dog guide,” she said.
A Facebook page called Vermont – Owen’s Buddy and Autism Assistance Guide Dog has been set up, Nicole added, so that people who are interested or who have questions can follow the family’s journey.
“We get asked a lot of questions and one of the most common is if people can pet Vermont,” said Nicole.
“That’s why I started the Facebook page so people know what’s appropriate and what isn’t when it comes to approaching us,” she said, highlighting that the most important thing to do is simply ask.
“We don’t want Vermont to become too protective of Owen so we want people to be able to pet him, but the most important thing is just to ask if it’s OK because we won’t always be in a space where it’s going to work.”
For more information on Dog Guides, visit www.dogguides.com.