Paws for thought ... could you be a foster dog carer?

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Assistance Dogs NI, which provides assistance dogs to children with autism, and others with mobility problems, are looking for foster carers in the north west.

The charity, which is currently based in Belfast, are hoping that they can run their training programme in Derry shortly, but in order to do so they also need local people to come on-board to foster puppies too.

The charity was founded in 2011, with the help of Disability Action and Autism NI. To date we have placed five dogs and eleven more are currently in training.

Speaking about the charity, Director of Assistance Dogs NI, Geraldine McGaughey explained, “Way back in 2006, almost ten years ago, I noticed that if you lived in the South, or in England, Scotland and Wales, you could apply for an assistance dog. But no-one in Northern Ireland was providing the same service.

“I decided to change that and the charity was founded in 2011, with the help of Disability Action and Autism NI.

“To date we have placed five dogs and eleven more are currently in training.”

Explaining how the dogs help, Geraldine explained.

“Our Disability Assistance Dogs help people with disabilities to live independently and with dignity, increasing quality of life and well-being.

“Examples of the tasks our dogs can perform include, picking up dropped items or finding keys; bring the phone when it rings; fetch named items – mail, remote control, telephone etc; open and close doors; turn lights on and off; load/unload the washing machine as well as enabling travel in public places such as shops, restaurants, public transport, and to navigate busy roads/pavements.”

Talking about the autism assistance dogs, Geraldine explained, “Although all children with autism will exhibit different behaviours, there are many aspects of their lives that an Autism Assistance Dog can help with.

“The dogs are trained to meet the needs of both the child and the parents. The new companion provides a steadying influence for the child, many of whom have a tendency to run off when scared, especially in strange locations. Our dogs are trained to prevent this.”

The charity places dogs with people from all across Northern Ireland, including Derry, and their waiting list is currently six years long.

Geraldine explains, “The dogs are free to those who require one, and although the charity always own the dog, they often stay with the family after their working life is over.

“It costs £20,000 to train each of our dogs, but because everyone volunteers their time free of charge we’ve cut that down to £5,000 a dog.

“Even so, we still do not have the finances to give a dog to everyone who asks for one.

“The need is there and we’re doing our best to fill it. If anyone would like to donate funds, or their time to host a fundraiser that would also be great.”

However, aside from money, the charity also need people power to make it work.

“Each dog needs a foster carer who will invest time in training a puppy to be a reliable assistance dog.

“That time includes keeping the dog at their home, as well as training sessions.”

It’s also a role that is extremely rewarding as Geraldine explains, “This is a very rewarding role but we all know how hard it may seem to give your puppy up after putting so much time and effort into them, but seeing them progress and certify to become an assistance dog and help a family with disabilities is so worthwhile and inspiring. You also get the opportunity to stay in touch with all the people involved.”

This sentiment is echoed by the charity’s dog trainer, Robert.

He said, “It’s absolutely fantastic to see the difference the dogs can make.

“Just last week we introduced a dog to a young boy with autism and to see the smile on his face was amazing.

“You really do need to witness it first hand to appreciate how much of a difference it makes, but I can say to anyone thinking of fostering, ‘Go for it, as it is so rewarding.’

“It’s definitely something that requires patience and time but if you can give that, then you are perfect for the charity.”

Robert has been the charity’s dog trainer since December 2014, but he’s been training dogs with the Roe Valley Gundog Club for almost 20 years.

Talking about his role he comments, “I really enjoy working with the charity. It’s such a rewarding role. I look forward to the training sessions every week, especially as you can see the difference even just one week makes to the pups. We work using a lot of positive reinforcement and my job is really training the foster carers to train the dogs, as much as the dogs themselves. We take it nice and easy and in this gradual way we train dogs who are calm and can react

to social situations


He too would love to see people in Derry getting involved. “I’m from the city and I know people who have autistic children and

grandchildren, and it would be nice to see the charity develop in the north west.”

Geraldine also notes, “Insurance and training is provided free of charge. It really is all about giving your time.”

Want to foster a puppy?

Director of Dogs Assistance NI, Geraldine McGaughey, talks about what is involved if you want to foster a puppy.

“It can be hard work looking after a puppy, but extremely rewarding. You will watch your puppy grow and learn, and develop into a fully accredited Assistance Dog.

“It may be hard to give up your puppy when he’s ready to start work, but you are giving an amazing gift to a person with disabilities and your generosity will change that individual’s life. Before you express an interest to join our foster programme consider the following ...

* Can someone be at home most of the day?

* Do you have access to transport?

* Can you provide the puppy with a secure and enclosed outdoor play area?

* Can you provide the puppy with a secure indoor area and a quiet area?

* Is your home currently free of other dogs?

* Can you walk the puppy 3 to 4 times a day?

“If you’ve answered yes to all of the above and are interested in registering, please get in touch to see our programme guidelines, as well as the registration form.”

Dogs Assistance NI can be contacted by phone on (02890) 297880 / 07557960599 or by email: