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Autistic teenager overcomes phobia with Dog Assisted Therapy

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14 year old Eitan is a non-verbal autistic teenager with a fear of dogs. He communicates by pointing to letters on a board. In recent years, one of the biggest barriers impacting his life has been his phobia of dogs.

“It impacted his ability to live in the world. We couldn’t go to certain parks, cafes or walks along the river because a dog might be there,” said Talya, Eitan’s mum.

It got so bad that the sight of a dog in the park would send Eitan into a flight response, running straight to their car, where he could lock himself in until he felt safe again.

While searching for help to overcome Eitan’s phobia of dogs, Talya came across the Dog Assisted Therapy program, here at Kites. Talya was interested in pursuing a session with a trained Therapy Dog, who she knew would be calm, comfortable and gentle around young people.

Our Dog-Assisted Therapy service uses highly trained dogs to deliver creative ways for children to achieve their therapy goals.
The sessions are designed to help children build their skills across a number of therapy focus areas. Sessions are facilitated by Kites’ highly qualified occupational therapists.

Although the main reason for entering the program was to alleviate Eitan’s intense fear of dogs, six weeks later, they saw a wider range of benefits unfold that have had a positive impact on Eitan’s day-to-day life.

“Our aim is to provide a safe environment for children to play with Bazza to promote engagement, enjoyment, and motivation. We aim for goals such as learning social skills, building self-care routines or working on motor abilities. Bazza’s temperament is very calm and consistent, so we are able to use this to cater to a wide range of needs.” – Brianna, Kites Occupational Therapist.

Brian, Eitan’s dad praises Bazza’s temperament for Eitan working through his phobia and eventually building a friendship with the therapy dog. “It was fantastic to see Eitan building a friendship with Bazza,” said Brian.

Bazza is very gentle and placid, so much so that during his training with Guide Dogs WA (link opens in new window), he was selected to be trained as a therapy dog to work with children. Bazza’s personality allows for autistic children with sensory challenges to feel comfortable, knowing they can expect Bazza to be attentive and quiet.

Progress Prevails

During sessions, Occupational Therapist, Brianna, used tools to encourage Eitan to play and interact with Bazza.

Brianna used a variety of techniques with Eitan and Bazza. She brought along toys that Bazza could switch on with his nose. That really fascinated Eitan. She also talked about dogs, particular breeds and shared interesting facts, like how Bazza has webbing between his toes so he can swim. This really engaged Eitan’s intellect.

Eitan loved listening and learning about Bazza, he was able to learn who he was and build a bond with him.

“Eitan is very intelligent, he communicates by pointing at letters on a board. He gets very upset when people assume he’s not competent. Brianna always spoke to him in a very respectful way,” Talya explains.

By the fourth week, Eitan progressed from being unable to even be in the same room as a dog, to lying on the floor next to Bazza, cuddling, stroking and petting him. The whole family could see how much Eitan was enjoying with Bazza.

“It is very special being able to see children develop skills that promote independence and their ability to participate in daily tasks, skills that people take for granted,” said Brianna.

Eitan in a Dog Assisted Therapy session with Therapist Brianna and Therapy Dog Bazza.

Unexpected Benefits

Talya and Brian explained that the program brought out so many unexpected benefits for their son.

“We did 6 sessions over 6 weeks and it became the highlight of his week,” says Brian.

Dog Assisted Therapy sessions gave Eitan something to look forward to each week. It was an opportunity to build connections with Bazza in a safe environment. He had a companion to play games with, and someone he was comfortable to offer physical contact through patting and stroking Bazza.

It also gave a chance for mum Talya, dad Brian and grandmother Betty to watch Eitan flourish in an environment they never thought possible.

“We regard it as a very successful experience. We thought it was a good therapy for Eitan and would thoroughly recommend it to others,” says Talya.

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