At age 14, Eitan is a non-verbal autistic teen. Eitan 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 the parked car where he could lock himself in until he felt safe again.
Through searching for solutions to Eitan’s phobia of dogs, Talya stumbled across the Dog Assisted Therapy program at Kites Children’s Therapy. Talya was interested in pursuing a session with a trained Therapy Dog, who she knew would be comfortable and gentle around young people.
The main reason for entering the program was to alleviate Eitan’s intense fear of dogs, but six weeks later, they saw a wider range of benefits unfold that have had a positive impact on Eitan’s day-to-day life.
What is Dog Assisted Therapy?
Kites’ Dog Assisted Therapy program is the first of its kind in Western Australia. Designed to help children build their social participation and communication skills, emotion and sensory regulation, self-care and activities of daily living, and fine motor, gross motor, and coordination skills. Therapy sessions are led by allied health professionals and use trained therapy dogs, like Bazza.
“Our aim is to foster a safe environment for children to utilise Bazza to facilitate the children’s engagement, enjoyment, and motivation as we target goals such as learning social skills, building self-care routines or working on their 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, 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.
During sessions, Kites Occupational Therapist, Brianna, used tools to encourage Eitan to play and interact with Bazza.
“Brianna used a variety of techniques with Eitan and Bazza. For example, Bri brought along Toys that Bazza could switch on with his nose. That really fascinated Eitan. She also talked to Eitan about dogs, particular breeds and shared interesting facts, like how Bazza has webbing between his toes so he can swim. This engaged Eitan’s intellect,” Betty, Eitan’s grandmother who attended 3 of the sessions explains.
Eitan loved listening and learning about Bazza, he was able to learn who he was, and build a bond with our therapy dog, a unique friendship between teen and dog.
“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 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 the presence of Bazza.
“It is very special being able to see children develop skills that facilitate their independence and ability to participate in daily tasks, skills that people take for granted,” said Brianna, Kites Occupational Therapist.
Eitan in a Dog Assisted Therapy session with Therapist Brianna and Therapy Dog Bazza.
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.