Uneventful shopping trips, calm car journeys and even a summer holiday have all been made possible for a Portadown family after just three months with their autism assistance dog.
Labrador Dougal joined the McCanns at the end of June - and the dog has had a profound effect not just on nine-year-old Joe, who is severely autistic, but his mum Sheenagh and dad Brian.
Joe, who does not speak and also has a learning disability, has calmed down, his behaviour has improved and his ‘meltdowns’ are much fewer.
Dougal is an anchor dog for Joe, having been trained to lean or lie on him if the Ceara School pupil bolts or attempts to run onto the road.
Said Sheenagh, “His teacher said it’s like having a different child in his class. Even though Dougal doesn’t go to school with Joe, his calming effect lasts all day.
“And myself and my husband feel calmer too - we don’t feel we have to be on high alert all the time. Before, Joe would have tried to run off and didn’t like to be attached to us with the safety strap. Now he hooks himself up to Dougal himself.”
The family have celebrated a number of ‘firsts’ since having Dougal. In August they went on a three-day holiday to Donegal, with “not a peep” out of Joe on the two-hour journey which previously had been an ordeal for him to sit through.
He also enjoyed swimming in the sea while Dougal, who is not keen on water, preferred burying sticks in the sand.
Added Sheenagh, “On Saturday we had a great trip to Rushmere, Because Dougal is wearing his assistance dogs coat, people know to be more understanding of Joe and give him space.
“In the past, people would have thought Joe was being rude or badly behaved. Dougal makes the invisible visible.”
While not all problems have been surmountable - a trip to the theatre still proved too much for Joe - the overall verdict is that the transformation has been amazing.
And on Monday, two-year-old Dougal became a fully fledged assistance dog when he passed the last of his tests.
“Dougal knows when we put his coat on that it’s time for work,” said Sheenagh. “People often want to stop and pat him, which is understandable, but we have to explain that it’s not allowed when he’s working.
“When the coat comes off, Dougal is like a big pup. He loves teddy bears and chewing things.
“We owe so much to the Assistance Dogs Northern Ireland charity, which supplied Dougal, and especially to his foster mother Jean who we remain in close contact with.”