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Eric Riehl • MWMG

Eric Riehl • MWMG

WALK ON: Alicia Cochill, who lives with autism, enjoys a walk with members of her family, including her mom Angela Oversby and her autism service dog, Brava.

Autism service dog has calming influence

By Julie Slack
METROLAND WEST MEDIA GROUP

Angela Oversby’s world has been turned right-side up thanks to a four-legged miracle. At least that’s what she describes Brava.

Brava is a chocolate brown Labrador Retriever who has changed her life and that of her young daughter Alicia, five years old. Alicia Cockhill was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at two years old. She doesn’t talk and communicates only by pointing at various objects.

Oversby is mom to two other youngsters, Aidan, nine years old and Austin, two years old. Trying to go for a walk or do anything in a public place used to be a nightmare for the Milton family. Alicia would often dart away, or break down into a tantrum. Brava’s changed all that.

NAVIGATING THROUGH THE FOG: A four-part series on autism

Brava is an autism service dog, provided to the family by Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides program.

Brava walks beside Alicia using a hand-held harness that keeps the youngster safe by preventing her from taking off.

“Brava is a calming influence on her,” said Oversby. “If you take her to a place where there’s lots of people, she’ll get agitated – Brava calms her.”

As a result, Oversby, who rarely takes a chance on dropping in to a shopping mall with her three youngsters, finally has the courage to visit public places without fear of a meltdown.

Alicia’s father Adam Cockhill, who lives in Mississauga, agreed that Brava makes a huge difference. He said the little girl, who’s obsessed with keyboards, accordions and her iPad, filled with autistic apps, has changed since Brava came into her life in late spring.

That’s the goal of the Dog Guides programs, which see the non-profit organization providing service dogs for: canine vision, hearing, special medical or physical disabilities, seizure response and autism assistance.

Dog guides are trained to perform a set of basic skills that are useful to all handlers. Some of their training is then tailored to meet the specific needs of their future handler.

They’re trained out of the Oakville facility and head office on Wilson Street. The Lions Foundation is the founder and primary funder of Dog Guides Canada, which provides dogs to families across the country.

Autism Assistance Dog Guides have been helping families and children, three to 18 years old, diagnosed with ASD, since 2009.

Lions Foundation of Canada/Dog Guides Canada communications manager Natalie Moncur said the dogs provide a calming relief for children in high anxiety situations and reduce the stress commonly experienced in public places.

The special bond between the dog and the ASD individual also helps build social interaction for the family and the child, she said.

Annually, some 160 dogs, which are first fostered by volunteers in the community, are graduated in all five programs. The average cost of raising and training each Dog Guide is approximately $20,000, however they are provided at no cost to the recipients.

The investment is well worthwhile, especially after hearing stories like that of Alicia.

Oversby said Brava, who sleeps in Alicia’s room, recently alerted her to the fact that Alicia had gotten out of bed one night. It wasn’t an emergency, but Oversby said it’s nice to be able to sleep a little more soundly knowing that Alicia has an extra set of eyes watching over her 24 hours a day.

Visit www.dogguides.com for more information, to donate, or to apply for a service dog.

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