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  • Writer's pictureAmy Godfrey

Therapy Dogs

Updated: Jun 18, 2021

Who here loves dogs?

If you found this blog I'm guessing you do. So do I. Oh how I love dogs!

My family is made up of 2 adults, 2 boys, 2 cats and 3 dogs. For anyone new to my page and blogs, our sons are Autistic, sensory sensitive and learning disabled - the eldest severely so. This blog is all about our wonderful dogs and their natural ability to be therapeutic for my children - and all who meet them!

When I was growing up I went through 2 stages relating to dogs - when I was very little I was quite afraid of them; lots of little children are aren't they? And as I grew up I desperately wanted one. My parents had a few cats when my elder siblings were small but when my sister became allergic around 5 years old they decided not to have any more for her sake. So by the time I came along there were no pets in my house. Eventually I nagged my parents into getting me a pet hamster. I loved her. Her name was Fudge. Sadly she only lived for 18 months. I was kindly bought another hamster, Opal and a final one, Ripple. I loved them all so much and was heartbroken when they died; it was my first experience of death and it was rotten. My parents decided no more hamsters. A few years later they kindly agreed to get me a rabbit and soon after a guinea pig. I loved them. I was the only one my rabbit liked. She would lay on her back all dreamy and soft for me. For everyone else she was a bit savage. The poor thing had a couple of phantom pregnancies as she entered maturity and it made her very unbalanced and temperamental. She tried to claim the guinea pig as her offspring and that stressed her out at times so they ended up being rehomed in separate pens to a family friend for their last couple of years of life.

That was the end of the story for me and pets until I met and married my husband. He had always had cats and dogs in the house growing up. They were a real source of comfort and joy for him so we agreed that it would be lovely to have a pet together. We got our cats the year after we were married. 7 weeks old; completely adorable. We named them Ninja (all black male) and Damson (tortoiseshell female). They're brother and sister and they're still alive and thriving at 13.5 years old.

Roll on a year and our first son - Maximus - was born. I've written about him and his early years in a previous post if you'd like to read. He was diagnosed as Autistic and learning disabled aged 2.5. We moved into our current home when Max was 5 and pretty soon after my husband talked and agreed we'd love to have a dog. We'd read a lot about how wonderful dogs can be for therapy and companionship to children and particularly those with additional needs like our son.

We researched breeds for months and spoke to various breeders but none really felt like they ticked all the boxes for us until we came upon Finnish Lapphunds. We sent emails to 2 or 3 breeders in a vaguely local area and had some lovely conversations with them about the breed. We had basically decided upon this breed before we'd event met them but after seeing them in the flesh we were absolutely besotted and completely determined to have one. We knew the waiting list was long - on average new owners wait for over a year - but we agreed it would be worth the wait. The first breeders we met were Simon Brown and Louise Wyatt of Lumikoira Finnish Lapphunds. They are based in Warwickshire and you can contact them via their Facebook group here. The dog we were really keen on meeting was Kiva who was their breeding girl at the time. We met her - and about 30 other beautiful Lapphunds - at a dog show near where they live and it was one of the best days ever! Surrounded by magnificent dogs and proud, happy owners. All of them had beautiful temperaments. ALL OF THEM. It was amazing. And all soft and fun and friendly with gorgeous, expressive smiling faces, no drool, no smell; you get the picture. Perfect. Well our idea of perfect. We were kindly invited back to Simon and Louise's home after the show to meet their other 2 dogs; Mylo and Sassi. Seeing them at the show was wonderful enough but a Lappie in the comfort and contentment of their own home; what a blessing to behold. We were greeted with such genuine welcome and love by humans and dogs alike that my husband and I decided then and there that we would wait for as long as it took to have a puppy from this breeder. Kiva was too special. We took ourselves graciously off the other breeders' waiting lists.

Over the coming weeks and months we visited Simon and Louise at Lumikoira HQ MANY times, almost every weekend. Partly because we were so besotted with the dogs but also because we wanted to be really sure that Max would be ok and even happy to have one of these dogs around all the time. Each week we went he loosened up and became more and more interactive and gleeful with the dogs. It was so wonderful to watch him warm to them. He was never afraid, even upon first meeting them, but he was a little unsure of how to be or what to do with them. Simon and Louise were so kind and gentle and encouraging with him and the dogs of course were just themselves; perfect.

A couple of months down the line and we had some awful news from Simon and Louise. Their youngest dog, Sassi was ill. Just so you know this all has a happy ending before I continue; Sassi is currently laid at my feet snoozing away and she will be celebrating her 10th birthday in November (2021). Here she is with her niece and sister:

Now I have to tell you that Sassi was actually my favourite (I know you're not supposed to have favourites but Kiva was my husband's favourite and Sassi was mine.) It was discovered she had a problem with her blood and was in time diagnosed with Polycythaemia which means she makes too many red blood cells basically. Her blood was thick and dark like tar and it was killing her. It was horrendous. She was under 2 years old and we thought she was going to die. I wept for hours and we both felt so helpless and devastated. It's important to say here that this condition is exceptionally rare. At this time Simon and Louise had kindly agreed to let us have their beloved Kiva over to stay for a couple of weekends, again to let Max (and the cats!) get used to having a dog in our house. The vet said that what Sassi really needed during this stressful time was a stress-free home, and Simon and Louise run a dog boarding business from their home so potentially having bunch of familiar and unfamiliar dogs around her could have been stressful for her, despite Simon and Louise's excellent care and management of the dogs they welcome into their home. My home is very low stress. The cats are very easy-going, Max at the time was an incredibly chilled out and contented little chap. Tristan wasn't born yet. I was a stay at home Mum so was home all the time (I still am). So Simon and Louise called us and asked if we would like to have Sassi for a trial weekend and see how she got on. I was of course thrilled as I was desperate to do something to help her and so touched they trusted us enough to care for her in her vulnerable state. She came to stay the following weekend and it was absolute bliss for all of us. She was so relaxed and happy. After a couple of different treatments to get her blood healthy she was eventually put on a tablet form of chemotherapy. It regulated and balanced her blood very effectively with no noticeable side effects and she has been on that same medication ever since. She has also been living with us since then, calm and happy and healthy. We thought she wasn't going to reach her 2nd birthday and she's now nearly 10 years old. Pretty amazing! This is why she's referred to in the Finnish Lapphund community as The Miracle Dog.

For our family she is also a miracle dog because she is a natural therapy dog. She's had no training. From very soon after she started living with us full time she was very connected to Max and his emotional state. She knew just what sort of interaction would help him if he was sad, bored, stressed, frustrated or in pain. As you'll know if you've read some of my other blogs, Max is a sensory sensitive boy and he craves proprioceptive feedback in his body when he's disregulated (by disregulated I mean any feeling other than balanced and content.) When Max has been restless and irritable she will come to him and gently lick his legs (with basically zero slobber - they're not a drooly breed) to make him giggle. When he's bored she'd twirl around his legs letting him feel her super soft plushy coat on his skin. When he's sad or stressed she'll come and flop back onto his legs, giving him gentle and deep pressure to his big muscle groups and help him feel grounded (this is the joy of proprioceptive feedback) and let him plunge his face into her soft, warm tummy and chest. When he's calmed down he likes to explore her face - very very gently - and she's perfectly happy for him to do that. He looks deep into her eyes and runs his fingertips over her nose and ears and mouth. She is the gentlest, sweetest girl in the world.

I want to state here for the record that we've always been incredibly careful to be sure both Max and Sassi are safe when they're together. They don't get bundled together and left to it, this is how I know what happens when she arrives to help him out. The safety and wellbeing of both my dog and my child are paramount. And if you want to try to get a similar bond between your child and a dog you MUST prioritise respect and care of the dog and the human equally. Sassi is the sweetest, gentlest girl but you watch her gnaw through a bone in a matter of seconds! She's an animal, and if she were to ever feel threatened she might use her mouth. I highly doubt it but she might, and we must be aware of that when we want to think about pets and children. My boys have been raised to respect the animals in our home and they have never upset each other.

I've spoken a lot about Sassi now as she was the one who laid the path for our other 2 dogs to follow in her footsteps. The others we have are Sassi's little sister Sura and Sura's daughter Xena. Sura joined our family as an 8 week old puppy in 2014 when our youngest son, Tristan was 5 months old. It could have been really hard to have a puppy and a baby at the same time, but I got to tell you for us it wasn't. Number 1 reason for that I believe is that she is a Lumikoira, so she naturally had a magnificent temperament even as a tiny puppy and was already well on her way to being house trained. Number 2 was that I was at home all the time so I could keep up easily with her basic training and she could get frequent bonding time with me whenever Tristan slept. But the main reason was that we had Sassi. Sassi was the shining gold standard example of perfect dogness and Sura wanted to do everything Sassi was doing. So she is awesome because Sassi is awesome. When little miss Xena came along only a few short months ago, it was much the same! She is 6 months old now (at time of writing) and has 2 incredible role models and a house full of people and cats who are very used to living with dogs.

Despite Max's meltdowns, some of which are very loud and stressful, our home remains a very easy-going place most of the time, and when it's not our girls are confident and grounded enough to show no signs of upset or stress from being around a child in meltdown. In fact, Sura and Xena have even actively sought Max out when he's on the verge of or even in a meltdown so they can go check on him and offer a cuddle or a leg flop or a kiss. When Max is in a full meltdown, particularly a pain-triggered one - I don't let the girls get too near him in case a flailing limb were to catch and hurt them. But I'm ok with them being in the room if they want. Below you will see photos and videos of Max being soothed and comforted by the girls either just after a meltdown or in action of preventing one from happening, as that happens sometimes too. I believe Xena prevented a meltdown when she was just 3 months old! It's in her genes I'm sure of it.

Over the years our dogs have also worked with my dear friend Jen Leslie of Calvert Canines who is a very highly skilled and educated Canine Behaviourist. Our dogs join her on walks in a 'stooge' capacity; which basically that they model balanced, healthy dog behaviour on walks with other dogs with more complex behavioural needs. As you've just read, my dogs are very used to extraordinary behavioural needs, and this applies to their own species too. Sassi is the number 1 stooge dog but Sura has worked with Jen and her team as well and I imagine so will Xena in due course. This is a very special breed folks.

Now, of course not every dog is going to have the same super powers as ours, even within such a wonderful family line as the Lumikoiras, but chances are they're going to be a truly amazing dog. And with the right support, love, nutrition and simple training, you can make a bond with your dog that can be transformative for your whole family.

If you'd like to know more about the breed do get in touch either with me here on the website using the chat function, or send me an email or get in touch with Simon and Louise via their Lumikoira kennel Facebook group or the wider group 'Finnish Lapphunds In Great Britain'.

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