The Decision to Get an Assistance Dog was a Big One

Sara Stythe by Sara Stythe Additional Needs

Sara Stythe

Sara Stythe

By sharing our experiences of what it is like raising a child with special needs people can understand our little people a bit better. Hopefully th...

The decision to get an Assistance Dog was a big one. Research showed that it would not only help Isla as a young person, but also give her more independence as she got older.

Bo, the loveable Labrador, graduated from his training and came to live with us in October 2016 when Isla was 7.

Some Background...

Isla is the youngest in a family of three girls.

She was a very cruisy baby, happy to be dragged along everywhere with her big sisters. She was smiley, content and easy to crack up into a fit of giggles.

Somewhere between 2 and 3 years old, although she was reaching certain milestones, such as walking, there were a few concerns around her lack of speech and not responding to her name.

Her easy-going nature was slowly replaced with hyperactivity and impulsivity.

At 3 years old we had received the diagnosis of both autism and a chromosome disorder 2q23.1 Microdeletion Syndrome (MAND). An epilepsy diagnosis was also to follow. To read more about our diagnosis go to

At 5 Isla was still unpredictable and also increasingly anxious.  She was a runner.  Taking her anywhere was a challenge.

To avoid losing her she was firmly held by the wrist as didn't like her hand being held.

Going out also became too overwhelming, and she would say she just wanted to go home.

Her sensory system didn't work as it should. Loud noises would cause her to cover her ears, rain would cause her to tremble and in busy environments she would shut down and go to sleep.

She would often throw tantrums that escalated quickly if she didn't get her own way, if it wasn't her turn or if she didn't win. Sometimes she could be talked around quickly, other times it would result in her being stuck in a cycle of angst for many hours.

How does Bo help Isla?

We got Bo when Isla was 7.  The transition was seamless as Isla accepted everything about Bo.

Out & About

Up until recently when going out Isla wore a belt around her waist that was tethered to Bo. By being clipped to his coat if she tried to pull away, he would lie down and provide a 35kg anchor.

Over time, this has taught her that she is unable to take off and provides a focus for her to stay on track.

Going out became much less exhausting and we were able to walk longer distances. Isla could be independent to a degree without being held on to for dear life.

Now she is 10 she doesn't always want to wear the waist belt but holds on to a handle clipped on to Bo's coat. Occasionally if we are in a safe environment, she will lead him herself with me walking alongside.

Isla has got poor spatial awareness and doesn’t look where she is going. This gets worse when there is a lot going on around her.

She will walk straight into people, over people and through groups of people sitting down.

Holding on to Bo we are able to guide her to avoid collisions.


Another immediate improvement was that Isla slept all night almost instantly with Bo at the end of her bed.

She went to sleep easily and STAYED ASLEEP all night. This was the first time after 7 years that we got a full nights sleep!

Alerting to an invisible disability 

Isla may look like a normal 10-year-old at times but autism can lead to frequent tantrums and unusual reactions to events which may look like she is a spoilt little girl.

Bo gives her a calm, secure pillow to lie with when she is overwhelmed with sensory overload and alerts others that all is not as it seems.

Isla also finds it calming running her fingers through his hair or touching the bony structures of his legs.

Bo has just become part of our family. When home he is your regular pet. He loves a game of fetch and, of course, pats and cuddles.

Isla has grown up so much in the last few years and loves Bo's presence at home.

She likes to give him commands and I am hoping in a few years they will both be old enough to set out together and explore the world a bit further.


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