Dog more than a family pet for kids with autism

Speech doesn't come as easily to Sophia Mcquaid, as is does other eight-year-olds, but Sophia becomes especially expressive when she talks about her dog Sabreigh, a four- year-old golden lab.

Speech doesn't come as easily to Sophia Mcquaid, as is does other eight-year-olds, but Sophia becomes especially expressive when she talks about her dog Sabreigh, a four-year-old golden lab.

We feel so blessed to have this dog.- Tammy Mcquaid

"Hug Sabreigh...hug," she says, throwing her arms over the big dog, who just pants. 

Sophia has autism, and her dog Sabreigh isn't just any dog. Four years ago, Sophia's father Jason travelled from their home in Hampton, P.E.I., just west of Charlottetown, to Oakville, Ont. to pick the dog up. The dog guide was arranged through a program offered by the Lion's Foundation of Canada.

"Sophia tends to wander quite a bit, and that was why we decided to look for a possible dog guide to help her out," said Tammy Mcquaid, Sophia's mother.

The Lion's Foundation trains dog guides for people with disabilities, free of charge. The dogs are trained not to bark, to follow simple commands, and wear a vest when in public. It took the Mcquaids about a year to qualify for the program. Sabreigh is an autism-assistance certified special-needs guide dog.

"We feel so blessed to have this dog, just the whole process of working with the Lion's Foundation," said Tammy Mcquaid

"They never asked us for anything in return, and we were blessed to have this guide dog. She's been a wonderful part of our family."

Eight-year-old Sophia Mcquaid has autism, and is helped by a specially trained autism-assistance special-needs certified dog guide, Sabreigh. (Lindsay Carroll, CBC)

Sophia holds onto a handle on Sabreigh's back in public places, and doesn't stray. The dog acts as a comfort when she gets upset by sitting next to her and letting her pet her, which calms Sophia down.

Sabreigh is a loyal companion and friend, which is important, because like many children with autism Sophia has a hard time making friends, said Mcquaid.

"It's also a conversation piece, which helps out with her speech because people will always come up and ask her what her dog's name is and ask her questions about it, so that gets her talking about it a bit," said Mcquaid.

Only a handful of Island families have a dog guide for an autistic child. The Mcquaids were one of the first.

But it wasn't an easy transition. Mcquaid said it took about a year for Sophia and Sabreigh to become companions and work together efficiently. But the efforts have paid off ten fold.

"We're able to go grocery shopping, Sophia will hang on to her dog, and we just kind of go up and down the aisles much more smoothly now, as opposed to when Sophia would wander around the store and one of us would have to go follow her, while the other one did the grocery shopping. So, it's improved our quality of outings."

Mcquaid recommends the Lions' Foundation program to any families who are looking for support for their children with autism, especially if they end up with a dog like Sabreigh.

"She's so kind, and sweet and gentle and we can trust her 100 per cent around Sophia and we're very fortunate to have her." 


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